Two important principles are clashing on university campuses these days from Yale to Missouri and beyond. On one side, we have the principle of free expression. On the other, the principle that minority students – and their allies – should have “safe spaces,” protected from “micro-aggressions” and other tone-deaf insults.
You can see the problem already, can’t you?
Freedom from being offended is a noble goal but it’s not always possible, partly because we all have vastly different ideas about what offends us.
Those issues came to a head on the University of Missouri campus when a media studies professor bullied a student photographer in videos that quickly went viral.
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In the video, Melissa Click – an assistant professor in the university’s Communications Department, of all places – tells reporters to leave the quad that black student protesters had occupied and she loudly calls for “muscle” to force the move.
Since I was not there, I called someone who was. I called Ashley Holt, a Mizzou senior broadcast journalism major and president of the university’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. Holt covered the clash for local station KOMU-TV.
In the clash between press freedom and providing students of color with a “safe space” free of offense, I asked, which would she choose? I expected the sort of free-speech-above-all-else advocacy that I usually express. Holt had a different view.
“My personal choice was to respect the space,” she said.
Amid the confusion and heated emotions of the moment, she said, it became very difficult to cover the news without further inflaming the crowd. So, rather than become “part of the story” she had been sent to cover, she and most of the other journalists pulled farther back to give the protesters’ emotions a chance to cool.
“I was there to get a story,” she said, “but not to be a part of the story.”
The story still got covered, of course, and the viral images of Click and others who blocked and mocked the media did little to help their cause. Instead of presenting themselves as advocates for freedom and equality, they looked like the worst stereotypes of thuggish, politically correct liberals that conservatives ever produced.
Click, who later apologized for her actions, was forced to resign from her courtesy appointment at the university’s journalism school, although she remains on the university’s faculty.
“I think both sides learned from this,” said Holt. “Protesters came out the next day and handed out fliers saying this was a teachable moment.”
Indeed it was. A lot of universities have been blindsided by the protests that have arisen with Twitter speed, partly spurred by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and long-simmering concerns by black students who feel less than safe or fully included in campus life.
Protests of those problems didn’t attract much national attention until the seemingly unthinkable happened: Missouri’s black football players, supported by their coach, refused to play any more games until the university dealt with black students’ concerns, including a slow response to grievances by the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, who later resigned, along with Mizzou’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin.
I don’t entirely agree with critics who decry the recent wave of campus protests as a disruption in education. I think that in the long run it will prove to be a valuable part of their education. Today’s college students are entering the most diverse population America has ever produced. They might as well get comfortable with it.
In that spirit, while the Missouri confrontation boiled, I coincidentally moderated a town hall gathering at the University of Michigan where its president, Mark Schlissel, was trying to avoid what Mizzou was going through.
Students, faculty and others at the university were invited to microphones to offer their vision of what “diversity at the university should look like.”
The robust open-mike program only opened a discussion that needs to continue at Michigan and other campuses. Our feelings about race, gender, ethnicity and other human groupings are shaped by our experiences, and all of our experiences are vastly different. We need to talk and listen to one another about those differences and, as one Michigan student put it, “not just fake-listen.”
Clarence Page is a Tribune Content Agency columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.