First Amendment Lessons from University of Missouri

AP_photo.jpgSince October, students at the University of Missouri had staged protests calling for more attention and action from the university president in response to a series of racially charged incidents on campus. That protest had little traction outside of the campus—and it did not seems as if the university president was taking it too seriously; that is, until a sizable portion of the Division I football squad declared they would not play in subsequent games. Underscoring that statement, the coach quickly backed their decision. That action lingered for a day or so, until Sunday evening when the story began to run on major media outlets like NPR and New York Times. By the next day, the president had resigned.

Almost overnight, the students’ protests became national news, with swarms of media attention, including student reporters for the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the most respected programs in the country.

But those interests—in First Amendments allowances for the media to tell the story, and free speech rights to protest—clashed when Tim Tai, a 20-year old student freelancing for ESPN, attempted to take photographs at Carnahan Quad, where students had gathered, including some huddled into pitched tents. There, he was directly confronted by Janna Basler, the university's assistant director of Greek life and leadership in the Student Life Division.

“You need to back off,” she menacingly told him, the exchange captured on a cell phone video, which was quickly distributed.

Referring to the First Amendment, he responds calmly, “It protects your right to stand here, and it protects mine.”

It is a succinct statement that quickly explains the direct contrast between basic constitutional allowances to assemble and first amendment privileges for free speech—and, the incident has provided lasting lessons about those student rights.

In response to the unfolding events, the University of Missouri School of Journalism issued a series of press releases providing insights and instruction on legal privileges pertaining to peaceful assemble and media rights.
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Co-writing one of those press releases, Missouri School of Journalism professors Brett Johnson and Stacey Woelfel list several considerations for school administrators when managing such incidents. For starters, they point out that the campus space, Carnahan Quad, is a public space. That recognition is critical to providing framework for considering these issues—and how staff and faculty should measure and permit certain behavior.

Clearly, the campus green is a public space. Wanting a public space to be private does not effectively make it so. However, creating a specific barrier—like the students who were inside tents or, a student behind closed dorm room door—may create a “private space” (and, hence, off-limits) as long as there is a reasonable expectation of privacy (i.e., a decent rule of thumb is that the person is not in the line of sight). That difference between public and private space is critical in determining what rights students may have.

Second, recognizing that an incident occurs in a public space—and therefore should be considered “neutral” ground—the staff and faculty responsibility is towards maintaining that neutrality. In this incident, in addition to a staff member (the Director of Greek Life) telling a student journalist to leave, an adjunct instructor, Melissa Click, called out for “backup” to remove the student photographer. “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?,” she yelled. “I need some muscle over here!" (The school’s contract with Click was quickly canceled after the incident.)

Instead, instruct Johnson and Woelfel, “ideally, the space would have had neutral parties to maintain order between the groups”—what they call “refereeing a public space.” A staff or faculty member should serve as one of those neutral parties to maintain the public space.

Johnson and Woelfel also go on to explore more nuanced legal issues: Whether the protest itself—namely, creating a circle of people around protestors—was expressive speech itself (which is protected and allowable), or if it was an attempt to lock the press out of a public space (which is not allowed). These are case-by-case judgment. Again, though, the staff members or agents of the university in this incident did not act to provide a neutral party to judge the actions, but instead choose one set of legal privileges at the expense of others.

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