A confrontation between members of the media and student activists has sparked debate at the University of Missouri, a campus already embroiled in a controversy over race.
A video posted to YouTube on Monday shows Missouri students and faculty trying to restrict media access to a tent encampment used by activists who have complained of racism on the overwhelmingly white campus.
In the video, protesters surround Tim Tai, a student photojournalist hired by ESPN to cover the protests, and push him away from the tents used by the activist group, which calls itself “Concerned Student 1950.”
Protesters can be heard chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, reporters have got to go,” as they block Tai’s camera and prevent him from moving toward the encampment. The journalist counters by telling activists that the First Amendment protects his right to photograph in a public space.
“I’m trying to take pictures, trying to get the scene,” Tai told CNNMoney. “Immediately they start putting their hands up, blocking my shot. They say, ‘You can’t be on the grass,’ which is patently absurd.”
Faculty members also get into the mix. The video shows a woman, who appears to be Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media, trying to get another reporter to leave the university quad.
“Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” Click said. “I need some muscle over here.”
Tai said that other news photographers on campus were similarly treated.
The actions of protesters sparked an immediate backlash among professional journalists, many of whom said that Tai should have been allowed to take photographs on public property.
“I don’t want to make this about me, because journalism is good when it’s collaborative and not antagonistic,” Tai lamented. “I didn’t accomplish anything. I didn’t make any good pictures from that moment.”
The activists defended their actions, saying on Twitter that “it’s typically white media who don’t understand the importance of respecting black spaces.”
“We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, & sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives,” they said.
Neither Click nor a Missouri spokesperson responded to requests for comment.
Black student leaders at the university say that administrators have ignored several instances of racism on campus, including the open use of racial slurs. Several University of Missouri organizations, including the football team and the student association, have backed their calls.
On Monday, Missouri Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and system president Tim Wolfe resigned.
Saying he takes “full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred,” Wolfe asked that the university community listen to each other’s problems and “stop intimidating each other.”
Editor’s note: Rob McLean, who contributed to this article, is the Region 7 director of the Society of Professional Journalists, which includes Missouri.