To watch the video of photographer Tim Tai getting pushed around by a turf-protecting scrum of protesters at the University of Missouri is to experience constitutional angst.
“You don’t have a right to take our photos,” said one protester at the university’s Mel Carnahan Quadrangle following the news that University system President Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin would resign amid an uproar about racial issues on campus.
“I do have the right to take photos,” replied Tai, a 20-year-old senior at the university who was shooting the proceedings on Monday on assignment for ESPN.com. A former staff photographer for the Columbia Missourian, Tai was forced by circumstances to double-task as he attempted to take photographs and provide civics lessons.
Following the announcement of the resignations, Tai chronicled a celebration including the protest group Concerned Student 1950. After 10 minutes or so of jubilation, said Tai in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, protesters decided that it was time to push the media away from an encampment of tents on the quad’s lawn. ” ‘Media, get off the grass,’ ” said the organizers, as Tai recalls.
Yet he wasn’t backing up. He wanted some good shots of the tents, and that’s where the trouble started.
“You need to back up.”
“You lost this one, bro, back up.”
“You’re an unethical reporter; you do not respect our space.”
Those were just a few of the taunts that Tai received as he attempted to do his work. His references to a certain founding document persuaded precisely none of his opponents. “Ma’am, the First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine,” he said. At one point, Tai tangled with a protester about the absence of any law proscribing his presence on this disputed grass. “Forget a law — how about humanity?” protested the protester.
So much for the ideal of the American collegiate quad as a locus of tolerance and free expression. Time to usher in a new ethic of intimidation, a twist that carries some irony at the Columbia, Mo., campus. Back in February 1987, 58 protesters seeking the university’s divestiture from companies that do business in South Africa were arrested for trespassing on the quad. They were dropped in all cases but one, who secured an acquittal on the grounds that the quad was a highly public space.
“The people who were trying to impede the photographer, in effect, were trying to impede his rights to be there,” says Sandy Davidson, a curators’ teaching professor at the University of Missouri school of journalism. Nor was Tai intent on peering into the tents with his lenses. “I was not trying to get into the tents,” says Tai. “I wanted a picture of the tents, placing it in the quad … because that’s part of the story.” Regarding the restraint that the protesters were demanding, Tai felt this wasn’t the time. “I think … there are times when it’s best for photographers to put their camera down,” he says. However: “In this situation, this was national news, breaking news … at a public university and the students involved have become public figures.”
Upon checking his photos, Tai realized that the obstruction worked. “They didn’t turn out well because all the hands were in the way, and you know …,” he says. Were he to be given a redo, he’d likely just move to another spot. “At the moment, I felt I had to stand up for being there,” he says.
Tom Warhover, executive editor of the Columbia Missourian, said the Tai video aligns with recent events. “The protesters all week have asked people kind of to stay out of the tent area proper, if you will, and so we’ve had many confrontations because it is a public space and … other students have a right to be there,” says Warhover, who approves of how Tai carried himself: “I’m pretty proud of Tim’s actions, both standing up for himself and his job but doing it in a way that didn’t provoke.” Through his travels, Tai has learned that on one hand, the protesters “want to protect idea of privacy and protect a safe space where not they’re not overwhelmed with the attention. On the other hand, they want to control the narrative themselves because they feel the media has not treated minority or black stories accurately.”
There’s no excuse for protesters to push a photographer in a public square; there’s no excuse for protesters to appeal for respect while failing to respect; there’s no excuse for protesters to dis the same rights that allow them to do their thing.
And there’s even less excuse for faculty and staff members at the University of Missouri to engage in some of this very same behavior. In his chat with this blog, Tai cited the involvement of Richard J. “Chip” Callahan, professor and chair of religious studies at the university. In the opening moments of the video, Callahan faces off with Tai over whether the photographer can push to get any closer to the tents. “I’m not gonna push them,” says Tai.
(Callahan at center)
Moments later, the protesters resolve to throw up their hands (literally) to show Tai who owns this public roost. Callahan participates in this collective action. As Tai swivels his camera from place to place, Callahan shuffles to block the sight paths. Behold these screenshots:
Callahan at right.
Callahan, after moving a bit to the left and holding up his hands.
Callahan again, after moving to the right with hands aloft. The religious studies prof paired agility drills with his censorship.
A source with access to Callahan’s tweets (they’re “protected“) passes along these screenshots to yield some insight on his views regarding the media and the protests at the university:
(Edits were made to make the tweets compliant with Washington Post decency standards)
Callahan didn’t respond to e-mails and phone calls. The university’s media office said it has no comment at this point on the staffers. Not only did Tai identify Callahan as the person at the start of the video, but so did Peter Legrand, a graduate who took courses from Callahan.
At the 2:00 minute mark in the above video, Janna Basler, the university’s assistant director of Greek life and leadership, adds her own thuggish sensibilities to the mix: “Sir, I am sorry, these are people too. You need to back off. Back off, go!” In her showdown with Tai, Basler lays bare how little she knows about photography. As they tussle about a woman with whom Tai had just finished arguing, Basler says, “She gets to decide whether she’s going to talk to you or not.”
Tai responds like someone who’s interested in securing images, not quotes: “I don’t want her to talk to me,” he says as Basler gets in his face. When Tai asks her whether she’s with the office of Greek life, Basler responds, “No, my name is Concerned Student of 1950.”
And the video ends with assistant professor of communication Melissa Click essentially threatening a journalist: “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”
These three university employees had a chance to stick up for free expression on Monday. Instead, they stood up for coercion and darkness. They should lose their jobs as a result.
UPDATE: The university’s journalism school dean has released a statement reading, in part, as follows:
Assistant Professor Melissa Click, featured in several videos confronting journalists, is not a faculty member in the Missouri School of Journalism.
She is a member of the MU Department of Communication in the College of Arts and Science. In that capacity she holds a courtesy appointment with the School of Journalism. Journalism School faculty members are taking immediate action to review that appointment.