Photographer Tim Tai explains First Amendment
By Casey Bukro
Amid the chaos of student and faculty protests over racial tensions at the University of Missouri, student photographers Tim Tai and Mark Schierbecker stood out as young men who understood their First Amendment rights to photograph and videotape the historic event in a public place.
Sadly, Tai and Schierbecker were badgered, harassed and bullied by students and faculty while trying to do their jobs.
Schierbecker videotaped Tai as he was harangued, surrounded and pushed by a crowd of students and older individuals who held their hands in front of his camera and would not allow him to move forward.
“We will just block you,” says one. “You need to go.”
Others chanted, “hey, hey, ho, ho. Reporters have got to go.”
Another says, “You gotta go, bro. You lost this battle, bro. Just back up.”
To his credit, Tai stood his ground and explained patiently, “The First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine.” He added, “I’ve got a job to do.”
Tai was freelancing for ESPN to cover the protests that led to school president Timothy Wolfe and the chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, to resign. Tai told the protesters who were bullying him that it was important to record the event for posterity. And, he pointed out several times that he, too, is a student at the university.
Schierbecker is a history major and photographer for the student newspaper.
Toward the end of his videotape, Schierbecker is confronted by a woman, later identified as faculty member Melissa Click, who tells him repeatedly, “You need to get out.”
“No I don’t,” answered Schierbecker. After more demands by Click and refusals by Schierbecker, Click turns to a group of people behind her and says, “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”
Click is an assistant professor of mass media in the Department of Communications and an adjunct professor in the university’s highly respected School of Journalism.
The video of Click attempting to banish a reporter from the campus went viral.
Any journalist who views the Schierbecker video is likely to be disheartened by this demonstration of outright contempt for the role journalists play in a democratic society in reporting important events, and a journalism professor who seems clueless about journalism.
Journalists don’t expect to be loved. But the reaction of Mizzou students and Click toward Tai and Schierbecker reflects a growing national tendency to blame the media, a tendency that is part of the game plan of many politicians and conservative commentators.
And who in their right minds hold a major public demonstration that leads to the ouster of top university officials, but don’t want media to witness the event? Where do these self-appointed media blockers come from?
They wave their hands in front of the camera, put their palms against the lens or push the camera away. But if they were denied a chance to take a self-adoring selfie, they’d be outraged.
Click later 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, and also for the way my actions have shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice.”
Dean David Kurpius issued a statement praising Tai and making clear that Click is a faculty member of the department of communication in the college of arts and science, but only holds a courtesy appointment with the famed School of Journalism, which now is being reviewed. The New York Times later reported that Kurpius said Click resigned her courtesy appointment with the journalism school.
Even some students apparently had second thoughts in a notice that reportedly was issued, saying it was all a “teachable moment” and the media have a First Amendment right to to be on campus and protesters should welcome and talk to them.
Good thing these students are still in school. They might learn something yet.
Seasoned journalists commented on this Mizzou backlash against the media.
Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune pointed out that the student protesters themselves once pointed out that the black experience on the Mizzou campus rarely got notice “until it reaches media.”
“Exactly,” wrote Schmich. “Do you want to expose injustice? Make change? Even in a Facebook age, it’s hard to do without telling your story to the world through mass media.”
Michael Miner, media columnist for the Chicago Reader, had this to say:
“Click’s actions are astonishing because of the animus someone who teaches journalism — OK, communications — directs at someone else for practicing journalism. The only way to begin to forgive her is if she insists she is no sort of journalist at all, repudiates journalism ethics as not for her — and if we accept her on those terms.
“What’s most fundamentally wrong with her behavior is its partisanship. Journalists can’t be partisan to that degree. She appears giddy, like someone in charge as history is made, someone with a little power to make kids line up, hold hands, or form walls. She shows no comprehension of journalism’s above-the-battle ethic — though arguably that should be the ethic of any university faculty member.”
Maybe the esteemed University of Missouri School of Journalism should hold a campus-wide forum on what journalism is all about. It’s part of what makes America, America.