LOS ANGELES — Last Saturday, as the protests at University of Missouri were heating up, one faculty member posted an invitation to the national media on her Facebook page.
“Hey folks, students fighting racism on the MU campus want to get their message into the national media,” she wrote. “Who among my friends knows someone who would want a scoop on this incredible topic?”
“The story involves the failure of administrators, a student on day 6 of a hunger strike, and creative, fearless students,” she continued. “If you can help, please let me know!”
The faculty member was Roanoke native Melissa Click, now an assistant professor of mass media at the university’s School of Communications. On Monday, Click would become known as the protester who grabbed a journalist’s video camera, told him he had no right to be there, then asked for “muscle” to have him removed from the scene.
“Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here,” Click shouted to her fellow protesters at Concerned Student 1950, a student and faculty group that says it seeks the “liberation of black collegiate students.”
Click’s exchange with the cameraman, Mark Schierbecker, came after she and other protesters had argued with a photographer named Tim Tai about whether or not he had the right to be there, then removed him from the scene by walking against him until he was forced to leave.
“Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go,” shouted several protesters, including Janna Basler, the director of Greek life and leadership at Missouri.
Those exchanges, which were captured on video by Schierbecker, have since gone viral and set off a fierce debate over freedom of expression on college campuses. Tai emphasized several times throughout the night that he never had an intention to become part of the story and that the larger issue at hand was not about a First Amendment debate.
Click’s behavior appeared to be an about-face from her call for national media attention, and has made her the unwitting poster child for extreme political correctness and intolerance in American education.
“The student protest at the University of Missouri began as a response to a serious problem — outbursts of vile racism on campus — and quickly devolved into an expression of a renewed left-wing hostility to freedom of expression,” New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait wrote on Tuesday.
The same argument has been made — although in less nuanced terms — on several conservative websites and across social media. At The American Conservative, senior editor Rod Dreher called Click a “fanatic” and a “radical professor.”
Columbia Missourian executive editor Tom Warhover told LA Times reporter Matt Pearce that he was “pretty incensed about it.”
While Click’s image has spread across the Internet — on websites ranging from The New York Times to Gawker to Breitbart News — the communications professor has sought to diminish her online presence, blocking access to her Twitter account and removing her profile picture. (Basler has deleted her Twitter account entirely.)
Click also did not respond to requests for an interview on Monday night and Tuesday morning. (On Twitter, Concerned Students 1950 has said that it asked “for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, & sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives.”)
Meanwhile, Click continues to face criticism, online and on campus.
Katherine Reed, an associate professor in the Missouri Journalism School, expressed outrage on Twitter over Click’s actions on Monday: “MU faculty member [Melissa Click] and staffer [Janna Basler], shame on you for your behavior today. Shame!” she wrote. “Unbelievable how many times [Columbia Missourian] reporters and photographers were shoved and verbally abused during #ConcernedStudent1950 protests,” she added.
In an interview with CNN late Monday night, Tai, the photographer, said it was “patently absurd” for Click, Basler and the other protesters to tell him he wasn’t allowed to be in a public space. The First Amendment that protected their right to protest also protected his right to photograph that protest, he said.
The New York Press Club saluted Tai on Tuesday “who in the face of physical and verbal abuse, stood his ground” while covering the MU protests.
On Tuesday, Tai tweeted a picture showing that the group who attempted to block reporters had taken down the “no media” allowed signs and posted a welcoming and inclusionary statement.