Missouri city prosecutor Steve Richey on Monday formally filed an assault charge against Melissa Click, the University of Missouri mass media professor who was caught on camera forcefully trying to remove a student journalist from a campus protest in November.
The incident – which occurred amid the anti-racism demonstrations that led to the resignation of then-president Timothy Wolfe – spurred debate over the exercise of First Amendment rights on campus.
It also tied into broader free speech discussions across colleges nationwide, as students increasingly calling for spaces safe from discrimination have faced criticism for what some consider an excessive “demand to suppress the free play of ideas and expression if they are deemed offensive,” writes The Christian Science Monitor’s Harry Bruinius.
“The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered,” wrote Jelani Cobb, professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, for the New Yorker. “The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.”
Ms. Click was captured on video in a confrontation with student journalists Tim Tai and Mark Schierbecker during campus protests following Mr. Wolfe’s resignation. The video caught her attempting to grab Mr. Schierbecker’s camera and calling for more “muscle” to physically remove him from the site. Schierbecker filed a report following the incident.
Click later issued an apology, saying in a statement through the school: “I have reviewed and reflected upon the video of me that is circulating, and have written this statement to offer both apology and context of my actions. … I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior.”
But the damage was done. Click continues to hold a position at the university, though a group of 100 Republican state lawmakers in December called for her removal, the Kansas City Star reported.
“As a professional representing our university, Click failed to meet the obligation she has to her supervisors, fellow professors, university students, and the taxpayers of Missouri,” according to the group. Contrary to promoting a safe learning environment, her actions “served to inflame an already caustic situation that was clearly out of line,” and amounted to a “complete disregard for the First Amendment rights of reporters,” they added.
Some of Click’s fellow faculty members have expressed their support for her by responding to the legislators’ letter, according to the Star:
We wish to state in no uncertain terms our support for Click as a member of the University of Missouri faculty who has earned her position through an outstanding record of teaching and research.
We believe that her actions on November 9 constitute at most a regrettable mistake, one that came, moreover, at the end of several weeks during which Click served alongside other faculty and staff as an ally to students who were protesting what they saw as their exclusion from and isolation at the University.
Click now faces charges of third-degree assault, a class C misdemeanor that under Missouri law carries jail time of up to 15 days. It is unclear how the charges will affect her position at the university.
Some, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway, have applauded the city prosecutor for “taking decisive action and protecting students' First Amendment rights,” the Columbia Tribune reports. “It is now time for the [university’s] Board of Curators to do the same and discharge Ms. Click for her outrageous actions.”
Click has yet to comment on the charges, and as of Monday morning, it was unclear whether or not she has an attorney, according to the Tribune.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.