Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Discourteous Professor of Hypocrisy

They just don’t get it. The cognitive dissonance at the University of Missouri School of Journalism is incredible. It posted a statement about yesterday’s incident (which I discussed at length yesterday) on its Website  suggesting that it could be a teachable moment. The statement purported to be about the conflict between the First Amendment and “competing interests” but it was rather fuzzy on what those competing interests might actually be. It contrasted the fact that Carnahan Quad  – the spot on campus where the incident took place – is a public venue with the protesters’ “expectation of privacy in a public space”. Reality check: there is no expectation of privacy in a public place – that’s why it’s called public. The quad is open to the public, meaning everybody, and that includes the news media.

Quoting from the statement: “The space in question, Carnahan Quad, was a public space in which protesters should have been able to hold their event, and journalists should have been able to cover it freely.” So far, that is absolutely correct. But the University goes on to state: “Ideally, the space would have had neutral parties to maintain order between the groups.” What groups? This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the press. The press is the neutral party; its role is to be an objective observer and to report on the news event. This is not a situation where there were two groups with each taking opposing positions. One group was not “pro” something while the other was “con” something. There was only one large group of students and a handful of reporters. As a reporter myself, I covered an execution outside the Florida State Prison. That was the type of situation contemplated by the university’s statement. There were two groups of protesters: pro-death penalty and anti-death penalty. Both groups were allowed to protest in a pasture outside the prison, in separate blocked off areas. In between was a buffer zone designated for the press from which we were able to cross over and interview members of each group. But again, in that case, the press was the neutral party physically separating two opposing groups. In Carnahan Quad, there were no opposing groups.

The students formed a living wall to force a reporter to back away from the event he was trying to photograph, physically pushing him away. The university’s statement read: “It could be argued that the human circle was the expressive speech of the people assembled.” Um, no, that’s not how the First Amendment works. Battery is not a form of protected expressive speech within the First Amendment. Causing a harmful or offensive contact with another person, even if there is no injury, is legally considered battery, which can be both a crime and a (civil) tort. When the mob of students joined hands and moved in a menacing manner toward the reporter, came into physical contact with him, and pushed him back further and further, they were not exercising their right of free speech; to the contrary, they were denying him his First Amendment right of freedom of the press. Once again, this is not, as the university’s statement would have you believe, a clash of First Amendment rights; it is a clash of right and wrong.

The statement goes on, appearing to chastise the student reporters for attempting to report on the event, stating: “The school instructs its students who are working as journalists for its news outlets not to be participants in the events they cover. Missouri journalism students have a responsibility to be above reproach and to consider their actions in every situation.” I’ve seen the video and I can attest that the behavior of the student journalists was above reproach. Frankly, they were much more polite than I would have been. It was the outrageous behavior of the students, and the two faculty members present who were egging them on, which was unprofessional and despicable. The journalists did nothing to make themselves participants in the event they were covering; it was the unruly mob that attacked them verbally and physically, thereby creating a secondary news story.

The university’s statement concludes by saying, “The threat of violence in the video against the reporters is troubling.” Troubling? No, it is more than troubling. It is completely unacceptable and the university should state so in unequivocal language. There is no excuse, rationalization, or justification for university faculty members and employees to threaten a photojournalism student with mob violence, calling out to the crowd, “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!” Nor is it acceptable under any circumstances for a mob of students to commit assault and battery on a reporter. The legal definition of assault is “an intentional act by one individual that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact.” Watching the video, I was fearful for the reporter’s safety, afraid he would be harmed by members of the approaching angry mob. I can only imagine the apprehension he felt in that situation.

The statement concludes, “The threat may have derived from a crowd mentality that seemed to come into play at the scene or might have been influenced by an earlier physical encounter between one of the university officials and a non-student member of the press.” Entire books have been written about Crowd Behavior Theory, which posits that people will act differently as part of a crowd than they would individually. But while mob mentality can often lead to violent confrontations, the potential for violence is no doubt exacerbated to the nth degree when the only faculty members (and presumably responsible adults and authority figures) actively encourage the mob to threaten an individual. Mob is exactly the right word because calling for some “muscle” to get rid of someone is what one would expect from a mobster, not from college students or their teachers.

There were no competing First Amendment issues at play here. There can be no expectation of privacy in a public place. The press has a right to cover news events in a public place, especially one funded by taxpayer dollars. The press is not, and should not, be an interested party in any controversy; rather it is an objective third-party present only to report on the newsworthy event taking place. Students should not behave like farm animals seeking to intimidate their fellow students, reporters, or anyone else. That’s simply another form of bullying and should not be tolerated. Even more egregious, teachers are authority figures on the campus and by definition lead by example. They should not be threatening anyone. They should not be ordering journalism students off the campus any more than they should be ordering reporters off public property. And they certainly should not be urging an unruly mob of students to intimidate and harass any individual, especially a journalist attempting to exercise his First Amendment rights. It is even more egregious when one of the faculty members doing so is herself a journalism professor. (The other university employee was Janna Basler, assistant director of Greek Life, seen on the video confronting and blocking student photojournalist Tim Tai).

The School of Journalism was quick to distance itself from Melissa Click, assistant professor of mass media, by stating Click actually works in the Department of Communication at the College of Arts and Science, which is separate from the Missouri School of Journalism, both being colleges within the University of Missouri. However, she was also, presumably, working at the journalism school under what it calls a “courtesy appointment”. The Missourian newspaper explained: “A courtesy appointment allows members of one academic unit to serve on graduate committees for students from other academic units,” so I would infer Click was also working under the aegis of the journalism school in that capacity. Esther Thorson, the journalism school's associate dean for graduate studies, told reporters that “Dr. Click does not teach journalism courses. She serves on some doctoral committees.”

Click’s faculty profile page states she is an assistant professor of mass media in the Department of Communication – however, an earlier, cached version of the same profile page tells a different story. It bears the School of Journalism logo in the upper left corner (not “Communication” as on the revised page) and lists her position as “Adjunct Assistant Professor, Adjunct Faculty, Courtesy Faculty”. 

Regardless of how they try to spin it, Click was associated with the School of Journalism (she has now resigned her courtesy appointment) and represented herself as such. As a journalism educator and professional she should have known better than to attempt to circumvent the First Amendment rights of a reporter. That irony is almost as great as someone as rude as she was in the video having any title with the word “courtesy” in it.

(The full 12:41 video below is posted courtesy of the videographer, Mark Schierbecker. The entire video clip is worth watching, but if you’re pressed for time, start watching at 6:48).

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