As far back as the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley some fifty years ago college campuses have been the locus of fights over freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This week there are three big stories that illustrate some of the tensions raised by unpopular speech.
I’ll start with the one unreserved victory, the case of Steven Salaita. He was the professor who was offered a position at the University of Illinois and then fired (or had his offer revoked) after he had already moved to town and started measuring his office for drapes. The issue had nothing to do with scholarship or his qualifications to teach his subject, and everything to do with the fact that his pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel tweets had offended university donors and other supporters of Israeli government policies. The university was censured by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Modern Language Association, and the Society of American Law Teachers, and Salaita sued in federal court.
The great news this week is that Salaita and the university have reached a settlement whereby he will be paid $875,000 for the violation of his civil rights. Let’s hope that the sting of having to pay him ten times his salary will teach Illinois and other universities that censoring professors is not a smart move.
Staying in the Midwest, let’s move down to Missouri, where we have two separate First Amendment challenges. First we have antichoice State Senator Kurt Schaefer, who wants to use the government’s financial power over the University of Missouri to block abortion waiting period research. Schaefer got wind of a study that a Ph. D. student is doing at Missouri to evaluate the effects of the 72-hour waiting period law Missouri has enacted. Schaefer claims that this study violates a provision of state law that prohibits the use of state funds to, “encourage or counsel a woman to have an abortion not necessary to save her life.” Never mind that the study has nothing to do with encouraging or counseling women to have abortions, Schaefer seems to have adopted the current Republican stance that learning about the facts of an issue is the same as taking a liberal position. He obviously agrees with Stephen Colbert that “Reality has a liberal bias”. The university is defending the study, although the outcome is uncertain at this time.
Finally, sticking with the University of Missouri, we have the confrontation between student demonstrators and the press. Although liberal and progressive positions have for years benefited from the public exposure that press coverage brings, in this case we had demonstrators and even faculty members trying to silence press coverage of their activities.
If you haven’t watched the whole video you should. Here it is.
What you see is a group of demonstrators surrounding Tim Tai, a student press photographer, trying to take pictures of their encampment while the whole thing is recorded on video by another journalist. The biggest story has gotten widespread coverage, and it features Professor Melissa Click calling for the forcible suppression of the recording. Watch to the end and you’ll see her yelling, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.” Oh, did I mention that Click was a professor of journalism? Or, to be more specific, she is a Communications professor who held a “courtesy appointment” in the J School until she gave it up Thursday. We’ll see if the apology she issued is enough for her to keep her job.
There are a couple of other points to mention here, though. First, early in the video you see student demonstrators repeatedly yelling at the reporter that “You need to back up behind those signs.” (Hint: no he doesn’t.) Second, at 0:44 of the video you see a student saying, “You don’t have a right to take our photos.” Of course, a journalist, or any of us, has a right to take a picture of anyone in public, even if that person doesn’t want the picture to be taken. And finally, we see starting at 0:26 a group of demonstrators physically pushing Tim Tai to force him out of what they consider their “safe space”. We see it again at 2:17, where Janna Basler, a university employee and Director of Greek Life, starts pushing him back, and later lies about her employment at the university and grabs his arm as he tries to take pictures. It gets particularly intense at about 6:00, when a large group of demonstrators start to mob him, forcibly pushing him back by walking forward. “It’s our right to walk forward, isn’t it?”
Actually, no it isn’t. The common law elements of the tort and crime of battery are the intentional touching of a person who is not consenting to that touch, and with respect to whom the touch is harmful or offensive. (I don’t have the flash cards I made for myself when I was in law school, but the elements are set forth here.) In addition, legalities aside, there’s something really wrong with a group of demonstrators, particularly on the Left, using force and violence to silence the press, particularly on a university campus. If you’re pushing a reporter away from the story he’s covering while yelling at him, “Stop pushing me,” how are you any better than the cops who have been trained to yell, “Stop resisting,” as they beat up their latest victim?
The university has acted, suspending Basler, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Click’s resignation and apology are not enough to save her job. Will there be repercussions for the students? That seems unlikely.