By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
Today's decision by the University of Missouri Board of Curators to terminate Melissa Click from its communications faculty brings an end to a disturbing chapter in the school's history, and an important lesson about the First Amendment's strengths and limits.
At Missouri and at other universities around the country in recent months, there have been protests about a variety of issues. In several cases, groups wanting to demonstrate in public places have tried to exclude the media. However, as has long been established in case law, if a journalist is in a public place with the ability to see, hear or record what any other member of the public could observe from the same vantage point, they cannot be removed simply for being a journalist or attempting to carry out a journalistic function. They have the same rights as another member of the public; no more, but no less.
As University of Missouri student Tim Tai pointed out when he was confronted by Click, along with other staff members and students while attempting to photograph a protest, the same First Amendment that allows someone to petition for a redress of grievances and have the freedom of speech, also allows freedom of the press. These rights may, at times, find themselves in conflict, but they are nonetheless on equal footing as far as our Constitution is concerned. We'll be honoring Tai at our First Amendment Awards Dinner and Show on March 16 in Washington, DC for his efforts to defend those rights.
Moreover, as the Board of Curators demonstrated today, with every right comes responsibility. Though Ms. Click had the right to express her beliefs about the issues facing the campus community, she would also face the consequences of her speech and her actions, which led to an assault charge and, eventually, her termination. In a statement referring both to the student protest and an earlier incident when Click confronted police, the University said, "The board respects Dr. Click’s right to express her views and does not base this decision on her support for students engaged in protest or their views. However, Dr. Click was not entitled to interfere with the rights of others, to confront members of law enforcement or to encourage potential physical intimidation against a student."
The issues underlying student protests at Missouri and other universities are still being debated, and attempts by some to exclude journalists from public areas while observing that debate may happen again. But when it comes to the rights of protesters and journalists, the takeaway is that First Amendment rights apply equally to all those seeking the freedoms it bestows.