March 17, 2016

Last fall, race relations at the University of Missouri at Colombia were intensely unstable. Large protests were held across the campus, prompting the university’s president to resign over claims that he hadn’t done enough to address racist incidents that had recently occurred on school grounds. Melissa Click worked as an assistant professor of communications at the school. During a protest, student journalist Mark Schierbecker was recording the demonstrators, who had declared the inner circle of the protest a “media free zone” or “safe space.” Click blocked his camera with her hands after arguing back and forth for a few moments. “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!” shouted Click. That last part would imminently come to haunt her. Schierbecker noted that he was on public grounds, and he was well within his rights to record the demonstration. Click sardonically dismissed this notion, as other students gathered around Schierbecker and gradually pushed him out of the circle. He uploaded his recording to YouTube, and it went viral. Needless to say, outrage ensued. Calls for Click’s dismissal from the university were both abundant and fervent.

On Feb. 12 , the board at U. Missouri voted 4-2 in favor of Click’s dismissal, and released a statement indicating their position on the matter:

The board respects Dr. Click’s right to express her views and does not base this decision on her support for students engaged in protest or their views. However, Dr. Click was not entitled to interfere with the rights of others, to confront members of law enforcement or to encourage potential physical intimidation against a student.

This rhetoric circling around the notion of “safe spaces,” particularly with respect to protesting, is both quizzical and paradoxical. The entire point of an organized protest is to bring attention to a particular issue or cause. As such, any attempt to prevent journalists from covering such events on public grounds is not only in direct conflict with the First Amendment, and as such completely hypocritical—it’s also totally counterproductive. The twisted irony that calls for Click’s dismissal were right out of the social justice warriors’ playbook is surely not lost on her. But, alas, the whole event has been covered in every conceivable manner possible from every respective angle and interest at this point. Free speech advocates have said their piece. Click has been rhetorically crucified. Interestingly enough, she’s also been brought up on third-degree assault charges, but that seems to be another story entirely. The truth is that the incident itself is not terribly compelling, and Dr. Click’s subsequent dismissal is not all that surprising, considering the circumstances.

The various reactions provoked by said incident, however, were deeply compelling. This is evidenced by Melissa Click’s Inbox, a piece by Steve Kolowich with the Chronicle for Higher Education. Kolowich did a public information request for emails Click received after her skirmish with the forces of public shame, and what he found can be described as an interesting kind of cross section of human sadism—an exposé of sorts. The additional irony that the so-called “media” she so passionately rebuked now has access her university emails is palpable.

Of course, public information requests of this nature are perfectly ethical, and really quite necessary in a free society. “When news breaks, we try to get as much information as we can,” said Kolowich. “Professors and staffers at state universities are public employees, so the content of their emails (with some exceptions, depending on various laws) is public record. On a day when Dr. Click suddenly became a figure in the debate over free speech on college campuses, I guessed there would be a lot of interesting messages in her university email account, though I wasn’t sure who they’d be from or what they’d say.” It should be noted that the university willingly complied in a reasonable time frame.

Journalists can and should request information of this nature on a routine basis from public organizations and institutions; it is a fundamental part of proper reporting. In the case of Melissa Click, any supposed confidences are automatically nullified, as Kolowich indicated, by the fact that she works at a public institution; any communications should be treated as such. An informed professional should be aware that such communications are potentially subject to public scrutiny. And the argument that Click’s privacy has been violated in this instance would be a particularly specious point to make, considering Kolowich’s use of the information served as a tempered defense of Click. Or at the very least, Kolowich’s article serves as a plea for sanity and perhaps even mercy on her behalf—particularly with respect to threats to Click’s safety. “We’re living at a time when Internet notoriety can come suddenly and without warning,” said Kolowich. “This is true at universities, just like everywhere else. Students have video cameras, YouTube channels, Twitter accounts. What happens on campus, whether in the classroom or on the quad, is less likely than ever to stay there.” Much like the inner circle of the demonstration at U. Missouri, email correspondence of a public employee is, well, public information. It’s available to anyone who wants to access it.

One such message read, “I hope your mother dies of brain cancer." Another read, “I hope you're gang-raped by some of the very animals with whom you're so enamored." And this message really set itself apart in its vivid description: “Sport should be made of you, in which you are passed around a cell block for a week straight, then cut loose to be hunted down and killed. If hell exists, I want to be there to take part in your eternal agony. You do not deserve a marked grave." That last one was reported to university police.

Were Dr. Click’s actions unprofessional? Well, yes. Her behavior was beyond unprofessional. Yes, Click absolutely should not have been ordering her students around like a mob or some kind of security force. She should not have used her authority as a professor to do so. And yes, it was right that she was dismissed from her position. But, as these messages indicate, her cardinal sin was grossly disproportional to the reaction it incensed, especially with respect to threats of violence. Click issued an apology, expressing regret for her actions:

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. My actions were shaped by exasperation with a few spirited reporters.

We ought to take such a statement in good faith. In light of the violent messages Click received, one can easily understand why safe spaces are a trend at universities. People can be horrible. Let’s be clear. Threats of violence are abhorrent. There is no excuse for it. Standing up against cruelty, even when one fundamentally disagrees with the target of such cruelty, is absolutely essential in a situation such as this. It is perhaps all the more important in such a situation. Right-wing pundits might revel at the notion of the left eating itself—liberal journalists and social justice warriors going after one another with incisive zeal. But the truth is arguably more nuanced than that.

The callous witch hunt that Professor Click has endured is deeply troubling and should be viewed as unacceptable, at least for anyone who places a value on civil discourse. At best, a lot of the messages amount to kicking an individual while she was clearly already down. At worst, certain messages were statements fueled by unmitigated cruelty and depravity. But what can be done? This is the nature of discourse in an age where information travels faster than a user’s ability to parse the inappropriateness of such a message. A cursory look at Click’s inbox is evidence enough of that.

It would be a great oversight not to mention journalist Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which discusses in depth the matter of public shaming in the age of the Internet. And while it’s a great read, the conclusion isn’t particularly shocking: Public shaming is a bad thing. It has the capacity to ruin lives. But what about emails sent directly to one’s target of hostility? It’s valid to call out Click for her hypocrisy, and let’s do journalists and free speech advocates the courtesy of not equating their messages with that of the psychotic. But at a certain point, even the most sensible messages amount to beating a dead horse. In order to be an ethical actor in today’s world, one needs the ability to appreciate nuance. One needs to avoid logical and emotional shortcuts that come along with a hardline stance on issues such as racism and free speech. These are intensely complicated issues, making it all the more important to exercise a certain amount of restraint and caution when broaching them.

Public record requests, when employed in this way, serve as a kind of sociological examination of culture in the digital age. This is real, legitimate journalism in an age where reporting all too often panders to the lowest common denominator. The Internet has made it easier and far quicker to spread messages. Unfortunately, humans have a propensity to appreciate the extreme, broad messages over more tempered ones. As such, the normalization of digital communication technology has propelled absolutist rhetoric and broad worldviews like the plague. Extremist messages are inherently more viral, whereas the nuanced ones tend to get lost in the noise. One could say we have created for ourselves a scenario even more perverse than George Orwell could have predicted. One could claim that it is beyond what Orwell warned, and all the more tragic because elements of its existence arose not out of some government agenda to spy on its citizens—a concern, undoubtedly—but rather out of human nature manifesting itself in the digital space. One could argue that Internet has brought about mass market doublespeak, and much like Pandora's Box, we cannot go back to the way it was. And really, would we want to?

David Stockdale
 is a freelance writer from the Chicagoland area. His political columns and book reviews have been featured in
AND Magazine. His fictional work has appeared in Electric Rather, The Commonline Journal, Midwest Literary Magazine and Go Read Your Lunch.  Two of his essays are featured in A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics. David can be reached at dstock3@gmail.com or via his website.