Yesterday, protests at the University of Missouri reached an apex as hundreds of students, and at least one university professor, began physically expelling reporters from covering an encampment set up in a public university yard. What started out as a protest against the school turned into a protest against the media, prompting a mass confusion over who has what rights when the press encounters a hostile subject.
The protests began last month when a black graduate student named Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike in protest of university president Tim Wolfe, who resigned Monday. At the crux of the issue, currently camping on the Mel Carnahan Quadrangle, is the student group, Concerned Student 1950, which says it is drawing attention to the mistreatment of minority students on campus.
Yesterday, as journalists both local and national descended on the scene, it became clear that many students we’re vehemently opposed to reporters getting close or taking their photograph without first asking permission.
“I am a student and you’re pushing me. Don’t push me,” a student journalist named Tim Tai says as the group, egged on by Click, begins to push him out.
“You don’t have a right to take our photos,” a thin man in a denim jacket retorts, waving his hands in the air to prevent the shot.
But legally speaking, the thin man is wrong: The press has every right to be there and every right to photograph the group. The protestors are doing what they’re doing in a public space. That’s an important distinction, because in most, if not all, jurisdictions, a public space is by its very definition a place where someone has no reasonable expectation of privacy.
Which is to say: If students don’t want to be photographed or reported on while they are standing in the Mel Carnahan Quadrangle, located smack in the middle of a public university, they are within their rights to try to prevent journalists from photographing them, but (if persuasion fails) they will find it exceedingly difficult to do so without resorting to assault.
If students wish to use the power of the state to prevent journalists from covering or reporting on them—as at least one of them, threatening to call the police, clearly did—they need to be somewhere where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, like, say, private property.
Conversely, members of the press can’t sue the students for putting their hands in the air, chanting over a video shot, or forcefully making specious claims about one’s “rights.” Just as reporters were not, legally speaking, violating any protester’s rights by photographing them in a public square, no reporter’s rights were trampled upon by the student protesters; students cannot violate anyone’s First Amendment rights. (Faculty is a different matter—employees of a public university may qualify as government agents for the purposes of a First Amendment claim.)
Journalists can sue when students violate criminal statutes, which could be bad news for the students and professors caught on film trying to physically expel people from their encampment. In most jurisdictions, injury is irrelevant to the crime of assault. So if you, say, shove someone, it doesn’t matter if you meant to hurt them, or even if you did hurt them—it’s enough that you meant to shove them, or shove their camera, or any other item that could be considered an extension of their self.
And it’s clear from the video there’s a lot of shoving going on—including by at least one university staffer, Greek Life and Leadership Assistant Director Janna Basler, who was filmed pushing Tai.
That all may be moot. The protestors have walked back their stance since the clip went viral. Now, the group says, it is welcoming journalists onto the lawn because the “media has a 1st amendment right to occupy campsite.” Which is a nice sentiment, if not quite a rigorous understanding of the First Amendment.
Even Click has apologized:
MU professor Melissa Click apologizes: pic.twitter.com/AeIkhsxhhi— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) November 10, 2015
In the end, protesters may believe that reporters are exploitative, untrustworthy tools of the establishment. They may be mostly correct. But one thing should be clear—if you want journalists not to cover you while you act in public, you have to make an ethical or moral argument persuasive enough to get them to voluntarily stop. You can’t invoke your rights, you can’t shove them away, and you can’t expect them to just not do their jobs.