Bob Sparks: Missouri protesters on both sides of First Amendment

The events involving the University of Missouri continue to elicit big news centering on two important issues. One is the ugly specter of racism. The other is the right to protest and the role of the media.

The racial issues have been well chronicled up to this point. While the on-campus events did not deteriorate into violence, they should have never reached the level they did.

Protests, with the final impetus provided by a potential football team boycott and a hunger strike by a graduate student, led to the resignation of University President Timothy Wolfe. Later in the day, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced he would also step down.

A general consensus has emerged that Wolfe was either unresponsive or slow to respond to reported incidents of racism. Some are now saying there is no evidence that some of the incidents took place.

The university police documented the one involving a swastika and feces, so let’s go with that. Whether any words or deeds from Wolfe would have led to identifying the culprits is not the main point.

Wolfe had the opportunity to use the soap box available to a university president. He had the chance to stand on it and loudly condemn the act(s) as well as the person or persons who perpetrated the outrages.

A commitment to get the facts would have confirmed at least one of the incidents while either confirming others, or finding no corroborating evidence to support them. Ferguson’s “Hands up, don’t shoot,” which did not happen, still resonates across the country, but especially in Missouri.

Wolfe did not say or do the right things to quickly quell the outrage. Later, the group Concerned Students 1950 (1950 was the year the first black student was admitted to the university), confronted Wolfe as he sought to get in his car. He did not handle the encounter well.

Wolfe took “full responsibility” for what happened. He then resigned.

How many politicians and high-level government officials take “full responsibility” then do nothing? In other words, “I take responsibility, but am not interested in any consequences.”

By comparison, recall what Florida State University President John Thrasher did when a volatile issue visited his campus. As domestic violence accusations came out against football players De’Andre Johnson and Dalvin Cook, Thrasher did not wait for the legal system to play out; he got on his soap box and took positive action.

Thrasher addressed the entire team in person telling them there would be consequences for those who “cause harm to others.” Johnson was kicked off the team and Cook was later found innocent because evidence showed he did not commit the crime for which he was accused.

Thrasher confronted potential problems, both legal and public relations and quickly defused  both. Had Wolfe and Loftin learned from Thrasher, they would both likely still be in their positions.

The resignations were a cause for celebration on campus. Concerned Students 1950 and other protesters were delirious and rightfully so.

With the battle won, the media descended onto an area of campus serving as a congregation point for protesters. Suddenly, protesters informed the media they were intruding on “their space.”

Protesters created barriers or lines where the media could not cross. Some, including a free-lance photographer on assignment for ESPN, was nudged out of the area.

The ultimate outrage was carried out by a UM faculty member on a video photographer, who was ordered him out of the area. As the video shows, Assistant Professor of Mass Media (not a Journalism faculty member) Melissa Click recruited “some muscle” to have the videographer removed from the area.

This is wrong is so many ways, but there is another fundamental issue involved. Can we remind our young “Occupy Missouri” crowd that they are setting up camps, perimeters and checkpoints on public property?!

If they do not wish to talk to the press, fine. They have the right to speak or not to speak. However, squatters on taxpayers’ land do not decide who can come and go.

Click and a batch of protesters quickly understood, with help from an aggrieved media, that by drawing a line, they crossed a line. Click’s subsequent public apology and resignation  from her courtesy appointment to the School of Journalism – before it was rescinded – took some of the luster from what the protesters achieved.

Whether or not one supported the protestors’ actions, in the end they forced changes through words and organized, nonviolent actions. They should have taken a victory lap instead of acting like they had carried out a real coup.

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.


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