Mizzou, race and the myth of the public space.


Missouri j-school Dean David Kurpius.

When the video of the confrontation between University of Missouri protesters and a photo journalist went viral the other day a couple of things happened.

Facebook and Twitter lit up with people saying that if the students protesting racism at Mizzou wanted privacy “they should stay in their dorms” because they were in a public space.

I suppose this means that unless I am in my home (I am too old for a dorm), journalists are free to treat me as they wish.

It also allowed the national media to move the conversation away from the ongoing fight against racism on college campuses to a discussion of the rights of journalists.

I immediately flashed back to the sixties and the days when I was involved in students protests against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights and remember quite well that the FBI often posed as journalists and some journalists willingly gave information to local Red Squads.

Since we know that there has been a return, at least here in Chicago, of the Red Squad, it is not exactly a stretch to assume that once again some journalists are embedded.

Should we not be suspicious of those claiming to be journalists just because they wear a tag around their necks?

Two journalism professors at the Missouri j-school even make the point:

Regarding an expectation of privacy in a public space, it’s clear that the entire quad (or the area inside the human circle) could not be declared to be private. But the space inside the tents of the protestors, walled off out of sight, can be considered a private space, even though they were set up in the middle of a public space. The protestors could have reasonably expected to have privacy inside the confines of the tents, protecting them from members of the news media.

No need for protesting students to stay in their dorm rooms.

The ring of students and others used to hold back the media can be seen in two ways. The circle appeared to have been made up of students and individuals acting as private citizens and not as agents of the university or other government entities. Therefore, their human circle was not a violation of the First Amendment rights of the media. It could be argued that the human circle was the expressive speech of the people assembled. On the other hand, others might say the human circle was unprotected conduct intended to create a media-free zone, thus denying members of the press their First Amendment right to gather information in a public place. Had neutral parties been present, they could have made the distinction between whether or not the human circle was protected speech or unprotected conduct.

This on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand approach is a far cry from the shouts that students were denying journalists their constitutional rights that I heard the first day, including coming from the j-school’s dean, David Kurpius.

As far as the dean was concerned, there was only one issue and it was without complication: “The news media have First Amendment rights to cover public events.”


As for the issue of racism at the University of Missouri, Dean Kurpius is more, should we say, nuanced than he is about the rights of journalists.

Notes were sent to our journalism family in the morning, reminding them that the J-School stands for inclusiveness. We want the School to be a welcome environment for people from different backgrounds, races, religions and sexual orientations as well as one that provides equal opportunity for all. I personally visited numerous classes to share this message.

Through the years, the School has worked to break down institutional racism. In 1998 we offered the nation’s first multicultural course required of all students. Since I joined the School in July, we have hired an African-American advisor, and I am negotiating to hire an additional African-American professor. We held an advertising diversity summit and made restrooms accessible for transgender people.

Moving forward, a respected inclusivity expert will come to the School early next semester to help faculty, staff and student leaders develop the skills that promote learning through difficult dialogues on a routine basis. We’ll also identify ways for all of us to have ongoing discussions about these issues. There is no single solution. Rather, this is what we do as part of a continuing effort.

The University of Missouri j-school added a class on diversity in 1998 and are looking to hire their first African American professor now.

No rush.

4 thoughts on “Mizzou, race and the myth of the public space.

  1. “The University of Missouri j-school added a class on diversity in 1998 and are looking to hire their first African American professor now” is an inaccurate statement. University of Missouri’s j-school has had African American professors for decades. If one does some homework, goes to their website and takes time to look at faculty profiles, he/she will know. As to public/private space, there is the Constitution, the First Amendment, the statutory law and the common law. And one needs to look and research all these documents to be able to say with at least high level of certainty whether tents can be considered private space and whether human circle is a form of free expression. There is also such thing as public interest that comes into play every time freedom of the press comes into question. And there are some very interesting court decisions that set legal precedent, when what had been done in public service by the media was ruled as protected no matter how outrageous that may have seemed to others.

    1. If that statement about the first African American j-school professor is inaccurate it is the inaccuracy of the dean of the j-school whose quote that is, not mine. If there is a high degree of certainty of what constitutes private and public space, take it up with the professors of the University of Missouri j-school whose quote that is. They wrote of the uncertainty.

  2. “Since I joined the School in July, we have hired an African-American advisor, and I am negotiating to hire an additional African-American professor.” This is what he said: they hired ADVISER and ADDITIONAL African-American professor. And that, he said, what happened since HE has been there, not since the school has been there. I am an alum, and African-American faculty was there at least 12 years ago.

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