Here's a fascinating six-and-a-half-minute video that provides a perfect microcosm of the challenges photographers face in standing up for their First Amendment rights. I think it provides a manageable opportunity for analysis and discussion of the issue. It shows a University of Missouri student photographer named Tim Tai calmly standing up for his rights...and by extension, all of ours.
The video, shot by Mark Schierbecker, shows Tim calmly facing down a mob of demonstrators that is attempting to bully him. Tim stands up for himself and repeatedly (and correctly) asserts and reasserts his right to be there and to take pictures; the students (and one professor, but I'll get to that) who are harassing him can resort only to the authority of the mob—they outnumber Tim, and they attempt to obstruct and intimidate him.
Other than "the mob rules," they have no other basis of authority.
Usually, the bullies we have to discuss are police or rent-a-cops and security guards. That sometimes clouds the issue because it makes it seem like the issue is photographers' stances regarding law enforcement officials and their authority.
It really isn't. Tim Tai is correct—as long as he is where he has a legal right to be, on public or community property, he can take pictures of anything and anyone who does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. That right can't be taken away from him just because someone put up a hand-drawn lawn sign that says "No Media."
It really doesn't matter who is bullying him—it could be a chief of police or a renegade student mob, the bouncer of a nightclub or a worksite foreman worried about OSHA violations. He is within his legal rights.
Of course, that might not save him from violence.
In this case, a more serious issue is the woman seen at the end of the video (above). She is Melissa Click, an Assistant Professor of Mass Media* in the Communication Department at the University of Missouri. She's clearly seen assaulting the videographer (her blow jolts the camera) and then inciting violence against his person, asking for "muscle" to help her "get this reporter out of here." (Keep in mind the "reporter" is a student.)
Is this appropriate behavior for a University faculty member? Even when acting out some fantasy of being a neo-1960s lawn-chair revolutionary, or whatever she thinks she's doing? Doesn't seem that way to a lot of people. The video of her unfortunate behavior went viral, and has created considerable backlash against her.
Criticism of Professor Click's actions has since been taken up as a cause among conservative media. Mark Schierbecker appeared on Fox News, and last Wednesday filed a complaint against Click alleging simple assault. Professor Click issued a prepared statement of apology and regret, and resigned a courtesy appointment with the School of Journalism. However, she apparently retains her professorship in the Communication Department, so headlines on the Web such as "Melissa Click Resigns" give the wrong impression.
Student photojournalist Tim Tai, from his website
Freedom of the press
But back to Tim Tai. I agree with the Atlantic writer James Fallows, who wrote, "...in real time, under mounting pressure, [Tim Tai] shows intellectual and emotional composure anyone in our business would admire. The way the students (and some professors) are dealing with him is the way I’ve seen officials in China deal with reporters, which is not a comparison that reflects well on them."
Amen. The persecution and obstruction of journalists is indeed a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. And we all need to stand up for freedom of the press...whoever the bullies might be.
(Thanks to Mani Sitaraman)
*I tell ya, ya can't make this stuff up.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said, "He is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution" which I'm not sure it true, where it now says "he is within his legal rights." —Mike]
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Wes: "The University of Missouri consistently receives a top 10 national ranking for its journalism programs. It received the #1 ranking in 2014 by College Magazine. How does a university with the highest reputation for journalism education justify keeping employed a professor caught on video behaving contrary to everything they teach? I have lived in within 100 miles of Mizzou 46 of my 48 years and have always been proud of their standing in journalism education. But I can't say that right now. I know it's one rogue individual from a group of outstanding educators; but the university needs to make the statement that this won't be tolerated by letting this "professor" find a job elsewhere."
Art in LA: "It's ironic that this happened in the 'Show Me' state. From the mo.gov website... 'I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.' Go Tim!"
Dan Gorman: "I haven't followed this story closely, but I'd offer a few thoughts based on the linked video:
- I agree, the student journalist showed remarkable poise in a very difficult situation.
- The events in the video represent a finite slice of a much larger set of circumstances—what we see in the video is limited spatially, and chronologically, and may or may not be representative of the larger context.
- These events took place on a college campus, which by definition is a learning environment where people need the freedom to express themselves and to make mistakes—it may well be that some of the students in the video will have occasion to reflect on what took place, and may well choose to behave differently in an analogous situation going forward.
- Prof Click's behavior toward the end of the video certainly appears to be unfortunate for a teacher of journalism, and I respect everyone's right to express an opinion on this, but working as I do on a college campus I think we would do well to reserve judgment regarding her employment status—Prof. Click's faculty colleagues, college administrators, Mizzou students, and the people of Missouri are best positioned to determine what is in the best interests of the University, the students, and the state which supports them.
"We're all on a learning journey every day whether we're conscious of it or not, and we're all at different places on our individual journeys at any given time. What's important is not to be right all the time, but to get better over time."
Nicholas Condon: "People can act entirely within their rights and still be rude jerks. Tai may be entirely within his rights, but he was behaving like a rude jerk."
Roger Bradbury: "Tim Tai held his cool far, far longer than I would have. The demonstrators are nothing but cowards and bullies. The video makes me angry. For much of this video, female demonstrators stand far too close to Tim, knowing that no matter how nasty they are, no matter how they force him back just by walking at him, if he pushes back an inch it will be a matter of, 'You can't hit me, I'm a girl!' While the big brave male demonstrators stand behind them, telling him he should go and ready to act in 'defence' of the women they hide behind.
"Like I said, cowards and bullies. I sincerely hope that Tim Tai is more representative of students in the USA than the deeply unpleasant members of this mob."
NancyP: "Click is on the way out, most likely. I suspect that she has been informed of non-renewal of contract. It can be hard to fire a prof mid-semester; one has to find a replacement, and that replacement has to cook up a course (assuming the course isn't canned) and get to know the students in a very short period of time so that grades can be given. Plus, the university lawyers have the final say on timing of firings.
"As for the protesting students, I was flabbergasted that they didn't have an appointed set of media spokespeople. What good does it do to have a famous J-school on campus if one can't be bothered to map a media strategy ahead of the event? The WHOLE POINT of the protest was to have their views heard and acted upon. They should have been in control by having a press conference with photo-ops. I take it that the guy fasting was elsewhere.
"Now as to their issues—yep, rural Missouri (and urban Missouri) can be quite racist. Administration can't do a darn thing about the non-student good ol' boys with confederate flags on their trucks yelling racist stuff at black people on the streets outside Mizzou. If the administration can figure out who did it, they could kick the sh*t-swastika guy out for vandalism. I can see that having some black counseling personnel at the student health center would be a wise thing to do. I have no idea how the administration can be successful attracting a sizable number of new black faculty from outside the state."
John (partial comment): "As a photographer who dabbled in protest photography, I feel his pain. Years ago I found myself between mounted NYPD officers and angry anti-war protesters (pre-Iraq II).
"The protesters took exception of me taking their images, asking for press ID (which I refused) and accusing me of being a police officer and the cops charged at me just like they did at the protesters.
Rob L: "As a Maneater [the student newspaper at the University of Missouri —Ed.] alum, and a Mizzou one as well, this was hard to watch. I still feel that the initial media reaction to some of this was a bit...navel-viewing, but Click was in the wrong. And she is a Communications prof, not a Journalism prof, and at Mizzou, that's a biiiig divide. She was removed almost immediately from an advisory role on the Student Media board, and her status as a guest professor in the Journalism school was revoked. I do think there is space to discuss that 'I have a right to take your picture' is a really bad argument to make to upset people, and that stepping back a few feet can help deescalate things. Props to Tim for keeping his cool, and if yall are curious, The Maneater has a great timeline of how we ended up here."