Editorial: Jousting on front lines of the First Amendment

Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2015

Video of a University of Massachusetts-educated professor calling on students at the University of Missouri to use “muscle” to keep a photojournalist from covering a protest over racism went viral this week, and the initial impulse was for people to declare war.

On one side stood Mizzou communications professor Melissa Click, protesters and their supporters, who said a student photojournalist on assignment for a national news outlet had no right to invade the “safe space” protesters carved out for themselves on a campus green.

Journalist Tim Tai and the protesters “were both in public spaces, but the difference is he was trying to take their pictures and use their faces and bodies as an illustration for what was happening,” said Maija Hall, a junior and president of the Black Student Union group at UMass Amherst, who sees the media as co-opted by political and financial power brokers.

On the other side stood advocates of free speech and assembly — rights protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution — who expressed alarm that protesters would use verbal bullying and physical force to shove Tai and other journalists from a public gathering. How would the professor and students have felt if the tables were turned, they asked, and authorities used intimidation to silence them?

Happily, the battle lines have begun to soften and people in one camp are recognizing the value and complexity of the arguments made by the other. And from that exchange springs a true “teachable moment.”

The confrontation occurred Monday, as students and faculty members continued a growing protest against a university administration they said had turned a blind eye to racist incidents on campus. By late Tuesday, the professor — who got her doctorate in communications at UMass in 2009 — had issued an apology.

Citing a day “full of emotion and confusion,” Click said: “I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior, and also for the way my actions have shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice. My actions were shaped by exasperation with a few spirited reporters.”

Only Click knows whether her apology reflected a sincere change of heart or a calculated bid to keep her job. But the last sentence, the one that speaks of exasperation with “spirited reporters,” may betray a lack of respect for the role that such spirits play in a free society.

More clearly admirable, we think, are the flyers produced Tuesday by the Missouri student protest group. “The media is important to tell our story and experiences at Mizzou to the world,” the flyers said. “Let’s welcome and thank them.”

But wait a minute, you might be thinking, is it really that simple? Even if the professor and protesters were wrong to shove journalists, are people there, and here in the Pioneer Valley, wrong to take the media to task for the way they cover important issues? We’d love to think the answer is a simple “yes” — but it’s more complicated than that. Only four in 10 Americans said they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media’s ability to report news with fairness and accuracy, a Gallup poll found this year. Traci Parker, an Afro-American studies professor at UMass, told Gazette reporter Dave Eisenstadter it’s not surprising that students who feel let down by one powerful institution — their university — would distrust another one, the press.

While “the media” is hardly one entity, it’s fair to say that there are reasons for a generally declining public faith in the press. Distant corporate owners, an unseemly push for stories that yield easy online “clicks” and the diminished editorial budgets at even responsible outlets have contributed to an erosion in the quality of coverage in many places.

Adding to that is the democratization of information enabled by the Internet. Student protesters, politicians and interest groups of all stripes increasingly take their messages directly to the people and resent the mediation supplied by traditional news outlets. With all that said, responsible news organizations continue to play an important role in bringing to light precisely the sorts of problems the Missouri protesters are decrying.

While their presence can be uncomfortable, and their performance imperfect, journalists must be able to bear witness. The alternative is a society in which muscle makes right, and secrecy prevails.


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