In Rights of Activists and Media, No Clear Answer

Nov 12, 2015

Monday, after the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and the announcement that MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin would be stepping down at the end of the year, a video appeared that shows an altercation between members of the press and a group of activists gathered on Carnahan Quadrangle – near the Concerned Student 1950 campsite.

Some individuals and media organizations have been going back and forth since the video was released trying to determine who was right and who was wrong in the situation. But it seems not a matter of right and wrong, just a matter of competing rights.

The first amendment does cover the rights of both groups that were gathered Monday – the activists through freedom of speech and the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and the media through  freedom of the press.

And while no one seems to know the clear answer to the questions – what happened, who was exercising their rights and who was having their rights violated – one thing that members of both groups seem to agree on was that things got out of control.

Abigail Hollis is one of the Original 11 co-founders of Concerned Student 1950, the activist organization on campus that originally called for the resignation of UM President Tim Wolfe.

“Things got out of hand,” Hollis said. “Emotions were high.”

She went on to add that Concerned Student 1950 supported the rights of the press “100 percent,” but was  requesting that media stay out of the campsite on Carnahan Quadrangle. 

“As of yesterday, that’s what it was, we were just requesting they stay out of the campsite,” Hollis said.

"It was a great moment in the making. Something to tell my kids about."

When asked if perhaps the video showed an overreaction by allies of the original Concerned Student 1950 group, she responded:

“I wouldn’t say that either. I think everything’s blurry right now. So it’s kind of hard to know exactly what happened on both sides.”

Mark Schierbecker is the student journalist who originally posted the video online. He said he went to the quad after a class was canceled and started recording what he called the “most notable event in the entire year.”

“I was there mostly to observe,” Schierbecker said. “It was a great moment in the making. Something to tell my kids about.” But he agreed with Hollis. “It was disordered chaos.”

He said he believed “most of the journalists there were there to be objective observers and to report back what they saw. Take photos and not really impede or detract from the protest in any way.”

One right, Two rights; My rights, Your rights

Credit Bram Sable-Smith / KBIA

One of the ideas that activists and supporters of Concerned Student 1950 were heard shouting in the video was that the media needed to back off, and that the campsite and the quadrangle were a “safe space” for the members of Concerned Student 1950.

So what about this idea of a safe space? Is the media not allowed in these spaces? Sandy Davidson, who teaches communication law for the Missouri School of Journalism, said in a public space, like the Carnahan quadrangle, a “safe space” isn’t legally protected.

“You look at the purpose of different areas that are owned by the public. If it’s a dormitory, clearly it’s meant for living and you can have a reasonable expectation of privacy there,” Davidson said. “Francis quadrangle, Carnahan quadrangle, our streets and sidewalks - no.”

She added that the constitutional right to free expression allows any person – journalist or lay person – to take photos in a public space.

Journalists obviously had the right to be taking pictures on Monday, right? Well, here the story gets a little more complicated.

Jeffrey Mittman is the executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, and he said the activists and supporters of Concerned Student 1950 had the right to impede the press – as long as it was not physical.

"This is not a situation of rights versus no rights. This is a situation of conflicting rights."

“Is it permissible for private citizens to interfere peacefully and not physically with a photographer's actions? Yes, it is,” Mittman said. “Is it okay for a public employee to do so? No, it is not. A public employee is a governmental actor, and their actions are limited by the first amendment.”

What about the two faculty members identified in the video?  Melissa Click, an assistant professor of the Communication Department, and Janna Basler, the Student Life Associate Director for the Mizzou Office of Greek Life, were seen in the video demanding student journalists leave the area and being physical with students.

“If a faculty member is on the public payroll and is a governmental employee acting on governmental property,” Mittman said, “For example, if a professor is known to be a professor of a public university and he or she is acting on the university grounds, she or he is acting as a governmental agent.”

One thing both Mittman and Davidson say is that physical contact with the student journalists is not protected legally. As Davidson put it, “the old adage of your rights end, where my nose begins.”

In the video, Tim Tai, the student photographer seen defending his right to take pictures, is pushed by supporters of Concerned Student 1950 that had formed a human wall around the campsite.

Schierbecker was physically touched as well.

“She [Melissa Click] grabbed at my camera and several students were called over by her as ‘muscle’ to push me,” Schierbecker said. “To be a physical deterrent to keep me away from the main body of tents.”

This, Davidson said, is never protected by law.

“You cannot threaten somebody with bodily harm, and you definitely cannot lay on hands,” Davidson said.

 Rights vs. Ethics

Davidson raised an important question while speaking to KBIA. She said she had been wondering where the balance of ethics and rights lies in this situation.

“There are a lot of situations where journalists will have legal rights, but they'll use ethical restraint.”

"They're doing their job and trying to get the story, but that doesn't always alight with what's best for the people involved with the story."

Such as in the case of not using the names of rape victims or publishing photos of bodies riddled with bullet holes.

Hollis said Concerned Student 1950 wanted to create a safe space where “no one is doing things that they know will intentionally make others uncomfortable or put them in a bad situation or harm them psychologically, emotionally, etc.”

“Our point of trying to keep the media away from this safe space that we have tried to establish is that often times media representations do not have us in mind when they're doing what they're doing,” Hollis said. “So they’re doing their job and trying to get the story, but that doesn’t always alight with what’s best for the people involved with the story.”

And she added that often it’s hard for people to distinguish between who is and isn’t the media.

“We're just trying to do what’s best for the students who are here fellowshipping with us,” Hollis said.

Mittman also addressed the idea of a safe space, and said that it is important to not let the desire or need for a safe space get lost in the conversation about first amendment rights because, in many cases, students of color can feel unsafe or feel like they are unprotected.

“I feel like it is important that we not lose sight of the fact that it is reasonable and appropriate for students to work in a peaceful manner to create zones of safety, to create an environment that protects their right to study, to be, to walk unharmed, unmolested.”

And this takes us back to the question of ethics. If someone is asking for space free of media, does the journalist respect that and perhaps back up?

It’s still not clear, and while the student journalists and other media assembled had the right to be on the quad, just as much as the protesters, were they infringing on an ethical boundary Concerned Student 1950 wanted enforced?

Davidson said she doesn’t know, but maybe.

“Perhaps what was going on with this circle was an attempt to have ethical restraint and impose ethical restraint,” Davidson said. “And asking, but maybe not in as delicate terms as possible, the journalists to refrain and to just back up and give space.

Mittman also said this may have been the case.

“I think what you saw was a particular situation where there were a large number of protesters who wanted to protect what they felt was the privacy or a moment to grieve or to celebrate without documentation by the media,” Mittman said.

So are there any clear answers about what occurred on Monday? Yes, one: that physical force is not protected by law. But as to the confrontations between protestors and journalist, it remains a matter of judgment.

“This is not a situation of rights versus no rights,” Mittman said. “This is a situation of conflicting rights. Different types of restrictions and limitations. And it is very easy in such a situation to get it wrong.”