Democracy Dies in Darkness

Grade Point

More than 100 lawmakers demand that professor who ordered journalists away from Mizzou protesters be fired

By Susan Svrluga

January 5, 2016 at 5:15 PM

In this Nov. 9, 2015, frame from video provided by Mark Schierbecker, Melissa Click, an assistant professor in Missouri’s communications department, confronts Schierbecker and later calls for “muscle” to help remove him from the protest area in Columbia, Mo. (Mark Schierbecker via AP)

More than 100 Republican lawmakers in Missouri are calling for the University of Missouri to fire Melissa Click, the assistant professor who called for "muscle" to keep a reporter from covering a student protest on campus.

The demonstrations in the fall  over race and other bias incidents on the public university campus made national news — and  in November, video of a journalist trying to cover it but being physically pushed out by Click, a mass-media professor, went viral.

Click grabbed Mark Schierbecker's camera and told him to get out. When he said he didn't have to leave, she said: "All right. Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here."

[Professor under fire for confronting journalist at Mizzou]

[University of Missouri chancellor, system president resign amid protests]

The Republican lawmakers in the state general assembly called on the university system's Board of Curators to immediately fire her for suppressing free speech and further inflaming tensions on the state's flagship university campus.

"It should be evident that these actions are inappropriate, illegal, and unacceptable for a faculty member at the University of Missouri," they wrote in a letter to the board, the interim chancellor and interim president.

Click did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday. A spokesman for the university system and the board referred questions to the university. A spokesman for the university said he could not comment on personnel matters.

Just before the dispute with Schierbecker, a student journalist had asked protesters to stop pushing him when he tried to take photos, and said he had a right to be there under the First Amendment — the same principle protecting their right to protest.

The dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, one of the leading journalism schools in the country, quickly announced that they were proud of that student's professionalism and were reviewing Click's "courtesy appointment" in the journalism school.

Click apologized for the incident and resigned her courtesy appointment from the journalism department, but she remained on the faculty in the communications department. In a written public statement at the time, she said, in part, "I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior, and also for the way my actions have shifted attention away from the students' campaign for justice."

The lawmakers' demand is a real overreach, said Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors. If the university is concerned enough to consider termination, Click deserves due process, he said; a committee of faculty to hear all sides of the story and determine whether a reprimand, suspension or termination might be warranted. "One of the reasons why universities have tenure is to protect academic freedom — that is to protect against what these legislators are calling for — outside interference with the running of the university. I think it would just really be the wrong thing to do to just kind of cave to that sort of political  pressure."

[Viewpoint: How tenure made American universities the best in the world]

In their letter, lawmakers also questioned "the 'research' she is conducting," saying they had heard from many constituents outraged that taxpayer dollars were funding her work on Lady Gaga, "Twilight," and "50 Shades of Grey."

Click presented her academic work online, in part, as: "Current research projects involve 50 Shades of Grey readers, the impact of social media in fans' relationship with Lady Gaga, masculinity and male fans, messages about class and food in reality television programming, and messages about work in children's television programs." She lists multiple awards and recognition  for teaching, and published articles, such as, "Untidy: Fan response to the soiling of Martha Stewart's spotless image," and "Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, and the Vampire Franchise."

The lawmakers wrote that "there may be some value in pop culture studies," but the controversy was pushing many to question her role there. "What is even more insulting is that Professor Click was on a research waiver from the University of Missouri so she didn't have to teach classes. Rather, Professor Click spent her paid time off from teaching to assault students, harass citizens of Missouri, and work in contravention of our Constitution."

Fichtenbaum objected to that criticism. "Legislators are not experts in that field, they don't know anything about that kind of research. Nor do I," he said, adding, "I'm an economist. I wouldn't presume to judge her research. Someone in her field needs to judge that." Otherwise universities could become subject to the whims of whichever party was in power, he said, in determining research and teaching priorities.

A group of 117 faculty members have signed a letter to some members of the administration expressing "in no uncertain terms our support for Click as a member of the University of Missouri faculty who has earned her position through an outstanding record of teaching and research. We believe that her actions on November 9 constitute at most a regrettable mistake … " after several weeks of protesting along with some other faculty and staff members supporting the students' message.

"Some of the coverage has focused on the issues raised by the tension between the rights of the press and those of the protesters," the letter reads in part, "and we welcome discussion of these issues, believing that fostering such discussion is one of the roles of a public research university such as the University of Missouri. However, much of the commentary in the press and on social media has gone beyond legitimate debate to ad hominem attacks on, and harassment of, Click personally, and has even included calls for her dismissal from the University. In many cases, we believe, this commentary has been driven by outside groups with agendas external to that of the University."

The letter ends "… we call upon the University to defend her first amendment rights of protest and her freedom to act as a private citizen."

Missouri state Rep. Caleb Jones said in a statement, "At every turn, Click's actions were unacceptable and inflammatory in a situation where the students and the public needed and expected university employees to serve professionally and as a calming influence. It's imperative that the university move swiftly to remove her from her position."

The confrontation happened during intense protests at Mizzou in the fall that included a student hunger striker, members of the football team refusing to play until the system president resigned, a boycott of classes and a tent city on the Columbia campus. The protests set off and strengthened similar actions on campuses across the country by students angry about how minorities are treated.

[Onetime civil rights lawyer to take over as University of Missouri president]

[Can colleges protect free speech while also curbing voices of hate?]

Journalists approaching the encampment of protesters were stopped.

When Schierbecker said, "This is public property," Click covered his camera with her hand and responded with what sounded like derision.

"Yeah, I know, that's a really good one; I'm a communication faculty, and I really get that argument. But you need to go. You need to go. You need to go," she said.

As he left, she said, "And don't let him back in!"

Protesters and supporters of the Concerned Student 1950 continue camping on Mel Carnahan Quadrangle on the University of Missouri at Columbia campus in Columbia, Mo., on Nov. 8, 2015. (Jaime Kedrowski/Missourian via AP)

Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.

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