A series of race-related incidents at the University of Missouri Columbia has resulted in protests across their campus and standings of solidarity from universities across the country. There have been reports of racially motivated incidents on this campus for years. Examples of these events include two white students getting arrested in 2010 for dropping cotton balls in front of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center and numerous instances of black students being called racial slurs in public and private spaces at the university. Missouri Students Association President Payton Head shared in a Sept. 14 article in the Missourian that he had never been called the n-word until he began to attend school in Columbia.
Boycotts at the University of Missouri gathered media attention, and resulted in the eventual Nov. 9 resignation of the campus system president, Tim Wolfe. On Nov. 3, student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike until the president was fired. On Nov. 8 Black students on the football team refused to play or practice until Wolfe was removed from his position, which could have cost the school a fine of a million dollars per game if it resulted in the forfeit of upcoming games. These students, and many others, have been expressing frustration with campus administration’s inability to address issues of racism.
Concerned Student 1950, named after the year the first black student was admitted to the University of Missouri, is an on campus club that has been protesting the university’s lack of action or acknowledgement of these racist incidents. These protests have been drawing attention, and resulted in a student-reporter confrontation with student photojournalist Tim Tai. Tai was recording at one of these protests and was pushed out by mass media assistant professor Melissa Click and she demanded that he leave. Janna Basler, the director of Greek Life at the university, was also involved in attempting to remove Tai from the scene. After this confrontation, the supporters of Concerned Students 1950 began to chant, “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go.” Tim Tai asserted that the first amendment gave the people protesting their right to congregate in a public space and his right to report on the event unfolding.
Forced removal of journalists and photojournalists from Concerned Student 1950’s encampment on Missouri’s campus is a direct violation of the First Amendment. Declaring public property where protesters are congregating cannot be declared as a “media-free” space. There are two clauses in the First Amendment that relate to this situation; one gives people the right to peacefully assemble and another gives freedom to the press.
It is understandable that the people attending or supporting these protests are upset and want to create a safe space that is devoid of media speculation. Usually when events happen, the media has a certain level of control on the story that gets relayed. So wanting to deny press coverage in a situation like this is understandable, when mass media has had a history where many African Americans in this country have been subjected to false, biased, and nearly defamatory reporting, particularly in times of conflict. Wanting to change these misconceptions makes sense. However, forcibly removing reporters from the scene does not make sense. In an interview by Kenneth Irby on Poynter.org, Tai’s greatest concern after the incident was about keeping the perception of Concerned Student 1950 honest. He stated, “I don’t want the concerned students to get a bad rap. Their supporters were more unreasonable than the Concerned Students 1950 students themselves.”
There has been a trend of people wanting to remove journalists from public places. Donald Trump openly ousted Univision reporter Jorge Ramos from an Iowa Press Conference because Trump did not want to answer Ramos’ questions about immigration. Another Republican presidential candidate, Ben Carson, accused the media of “conspiring” against him because journalists have been finding discrepancies in his autobiography.
What all of these situations have in common is that they’re stopping journalists from doing their job and carrying out their responsibility to share the news with the public. The media needs to cover the University of Missouri fairly, and this can only happen if the students agree to speak and spread their message on a national level. Mistrust of media isn’t unreasonable, but members of the press are always going to want to know what is going on. If there is an attempt to block media access, then that is the only story everyone will know about. Blocking media participation only distracts from the actual event that is happening and places the spotlight on the wrong issue.