By Casey Bukro
Since all the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists consultants teach on campuses across the country, it seemed logical to ask them how they and their students reacted to events that played out at the University of Missouri over press freedoms and protests over racial tensions.
An earlier AdviceLine blog post focused on what appeared to be an attack on First Amendment press freedoms when faculty member Melissa Click attempted to banish two student photographers from the protest scene, for which she later apologized.
Hugh Miller, assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, took what he called a contrarian view.
“I disagree,” said Miller, citing a lawyer friend who pointed out that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “is a restriction imposed upon the state, not upon individuals…. It imposes no restrictions on individuals.
“Reporters are perfectly free to jam a microphone in my face – no government authority can prevent them from doing so. And I am perfectly free to tell such reporters to get stuffed if I don’t want to talk or have them around. In so doing I do not violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not, IMHO [in my humble opinion], a license for journalists to demand, and get, access to coverage.
“Whether the contested access is on public property makes little difference to the First Amendment issue (though it may be important in a property rights sense). Nor does the First Amendment impose duties or obligations upon individuals to afford journalists the opportunity to cover them.
“I think it is the dean of the Mizzou journalism school who was in error when he stated, ‘The news media have First Amendment rights to cover public events.’ They have only the right not to be stopped in ‘covering’ events by agents of the state. They have no right not to be stopped by individuals, in this case the individuals being ‘covered.'”
“I place the word ‘covered’ in scare quotes, since many of the students involved have, also IMHO, legitimate complaints about the ways their lives and grievances have been portrayed in mainstream media treatments.”
Among the signs posted during the protest at an improvised tent city was one that read, “No media safe space.”
On Facebook, Bill Osborne, writing about Mizzou, said “fascist behavior, whether from the right or the left, is reprehensible. Our college and university campuses should be centers of free speech, but increasingly, coteries of intellectual fascists are dictating who may say what.”
Miller took exception, saying: “I think you are overreacting. I can assure you, as a university professor with a wide acquaintance of other such teachers at other colleges and universities, that no one is ‘dictating who may say what.’ No, freedom of speech is alive and well on college and university campuses.
“But your use of the term ‘coteries of intellectual fascists’ illustrates an important point, I think. Much reporting by the mainstream media has depicted protesters as wanting to censor free speech, when what they are really protesting has been exactly such inaccurate stories about their real grievances.”
The Mizzou protests offered a “teachable moment,” triggering classroom discussions.
David Craig, a professor and associate dean at the University of Oklahoma, said:
“Our discussion grew out of watching the video of the student journalist working for ESPN who went in with his camera and the end of the video when the other student journalist shooting the video was confronted by Melissa Click. The short of it was that my students felt strongly that these journalists were free (in an ethical sense) to report on the activity of a public protest. They thought privacy was not an overriding concern in that specific setting, though they noted it could be if a journalist chose to press things further and go into more private space.”
Timothy McNulty, a lecturer and co-director of the National Security Journalism Initiative at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, said Mizzou was discussed in his editing class.
“Those who spoke out blamed Missouri school leaders for failing to address recurring issues of racism on campus. The journalism issue, as I recall, was pretty straightforward (these are journalism students, after all). (It was) that the photographers and reporters not only had a right but also a duty to record the protest and demonstrations.
“The communications school professor was wrong, as she admitted later, and it was important for the students as well as the public at large to understand the role of journalists in shining a light on the actions of the protesters and the inaction of the administration.”
Nancy Matchett is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. For the past 15 years, she has taught an applied ethics course every term, in which students select the specific issues on which to focus after discussing ethical theory and critical thinking.
“No group has ever chosen free speech, even in the years when I assigned a textbook containing a chapter on the issue. I no longer use textbooks at all, and students are required to draw from current case studies when deciding what we will explore — they still don’t appear to see free speech — or privacy — as a pressing moral concern.
“They are more interested in questions about physician-assisted suicide (this is probably due to the large number of nursing students who come through my course), environmental ethics, capital punishment, global poverty, gun control, the ethics of war and drug use.
“On the other hand, in all of my courses students seem deeply committed to the idea that the right way to respond to ugly or offensive or otherwise troubling speech is with more and better speech. When issues about ‘offensive’ ideas and what counts as a reasoned position come up, I find them to be fairly thoughtful on the benefits and need for open conversation.”
Lee Anne Peck is a professor of journalism, also at the University of Northern Colorado. Privacy, she believes, is the key legal issue raised by Mizzou and the tent city erected by protesters. Peck offered a link to a Missouri law firm’s website, which referred to privacy as “the right to be left alone.”
Violations of that right, Peck pointed out, would include intrusion upon seclusion, public disclosure of private facts and misappropriation of a person’s identity.
These AdviceLine gurus and their students demonstrate that there are many ways to view what happened, and is happening, at the University of Missouri.