By Gene Policinski, chief operating officer, the Newseum Institute
Let’s call it “losing the high ground by taking the low road.”
Quite amazing these days how much time some are spending on telling others, loudly, what they should not see, hear, discuss or report on — even as they speak and protest freely under the protection of free expression by the First Amendment.
There is no sadder example of suddenly rampant disregard and disdain for our core freedoms, along with a healthy dose of misunderstanding, than the now-infamous video taken Monday on the campus of the University of Missouri.
In incidents only seconds apart, a group of students, a university staffer and a professor are shown as they shouted, shoved and tried to block two journalists from reporting on student demonstrations against – wait for it – bigotry and discrimination.
There’s more irony there, in more ways, than in a bundle of episodes of “The Daily Show.”
There were at least two memorable YouTube clips from that single incident. Both should serve as “teaching moments,” to carry forward an educational theme.
The first is the regrettable sight of a professor of communications first ordering a journalist away from an impromptu “No Media” zone and then shouting, “Help me get this reporter out of here. … I need some muscle over here.”
A day later, her professorial status under scrutiny and bearing the disdain of academic colleagues, and journalists and civil rights defender nationwide, Assistant Professor Melissa Click apologized, saying “I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior.”
Apology accepted. Example rejected.
The second teaching moment is the remarkable patience and professional resolve of student photographer Tim Tai. In the video, he repeatedly stands steadfast against members of a mini-mob, including a person later identified as the assistant director of “Greek Life.”
As members of the angry crowd shouted “you don’t have the right to take our photos” – absolutely incorrect, of course – and aggressively blocked his path, Tai twice offered the calm admonition that “the same First Amendment protects your right to be here, and mine.”
In this case: Confrontation rejected. Explanation and example exalted.
If only there could be such outcomes in other contemporary challenges to First Amendment principles.
In just the last few months, the once-trumpeted “marketplace of ideas” has been challenged by opportunists, self-righteous “warriors for social justice” and the mob equivalents of the “heckler’s veto.”
Activists disrupt presidential primary events in the name of their right to freely voice understandable concerns over police shootings and longstanding complaints about racial profiling and discriminatory laws. A coalition with the admirable goal of preventing violence against women asks universities to monitor and block off-campus websites because some students and others find the images and comments offensive, demeaning and frightening.
At Yale University, Erika Christakis, a lecturer in early childhood development, is under attack for a reasoned note of concern about heavy-handed memos from campus administrators regarding costumes for Halloween. Merely asking if there might be “room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” drew cries for her to be fired.
And candidates for president find wide public sympathy in attacking reporters for the questions they ask, after they and their professional handlers agreed well beforehand to be questioned by reporters, not supporters.
In an era in which more voices can be heard by more people more easily than ever before in history, we ought to be encouraging, utilizing and protecting more free expression, not challenging journalists doing their jobs, erecting “No Media” zones, or misdirecting voters by attacking the messenger – even an imperfect messenger – rather than focusing on real issues.
The founders provided for the First Amendment so as to protect the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, petition and religion so that our self-governing nation can talk to itself peaceably about our problems in the name of progress and self-correction.
Perhaps there’s one more lesson to be learned from the Missouri confrontation: Tai told students confronting him that he was there to document the protest and was just “doing my job,” and someone shouted “We don’t care about your job.”
Well, they – and we – should care, and not just about the press, but about the spectrum of our core freedoms.
You cannot defend or honor those freedoms by shouting, shoving, calling for “muscle” or by shouting down the right of others to speak freely.
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center.
Editor's note: See more here at the Newseum.