The rules on the ground

There were differing interpretations of the rules that govern journalism in this country on the University of Missouri campus today. Journalists, practicing their trade in a public space, were hindered as participants in an event they were attempting to cover decided they would make the rules.

A little background…..

It’s been an interesting semester at the University. A number of issues related to graduate student support and religious and racial intolerance have led to student demonstrations and expectations of responses from the university’s top officials. The responses have been found to be lacking in details or evidence of understanding of the students’ perspectives on the issues. Admittedly, that description is a bit oversimplified. The end result however is that concern by students, faculty and staff over a lack of leadership resulted in the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri system. Later in the day the Columbia campus chancellor also announced he would leave that post by the end of the year.

As part of the student response, African-American student leaders had erected a tent city in an open space on campus. When the system president’s resignation was announced, supporters who had gathered there celebrated. Journalists were there to document the reactions of the participants. And that’s when the rules became an issue.

Student leaders and their supporters wanted journalists to stay at a distance from the tents to allow a space for privacy. Some decided that journalists, including photographers, were too close and they would be moved back by participants linking arms and moving forward as a human wall, pushing anyone in their path ahead of them as they announced “We’re just walking. We have a right to walk.” As a photographer, also a student, attempted to make photographs the participants pushed into him and raised their voices to say, among other things, that he didn’t have the right to take their pictures. They raised their hands to attempt to block photographers’ views of the space behind their wall.

Except this is a public space. The University of Missouri is a public institution. The quadrangle in question is an open, publicly-accessible space. Photography in public is legal and within the rights of anyone to do. Making up the rules because you don’t want someone to do something within their rights isn’t acceptable.

Compounding the issue, a university staff member inserted herself between the participants and the photographer, further claiming that the photographer was not allowed there. It’s ironic that the staff member who works within the student life division of the university proactively attempted to deny a student his rights. A faculty member of another department on campus (not the School of Journalism) also told a student with a camera he had to leave, that media had to back up and respect the assembled students, ignoring that some of the people she was attempting to get removed were themselves students. She also summoned “muscle” to help remove another reporter from inside the wall. (There’s video: The muscle comment si toward the end, but the staff person inserts herself at about 2:00 telling the photographer to back off from her personal space after she got in the photographer’s face.)

What some of these participants failed to understand is that the student photographers have actually been at the site, talking with the student leaders and covering the story longer than some of the participants themselves have been involved. They’ve built relationships with some of the leaders. They are respectful if a person, when asked, declines to talk with them or just asks for a bit of privacy before letting someone in.

When the rules on the ground diverge from the rules on paper, journalists have to assert their rights to work in public spaces while exhibiting concern and empathy for their subjects. They are also taught to recognize when not to escalate the situation, giving those who would bend or outright make up the rules room to do just that. The photographers tried to explain. The participants didn’t want to hear.

In the grand scheme, the bigger story is the actions of a lot of people to say the conditions and leadership aren’t acceptable and the response that occurred from peaceful efforts. These attempts to exclude people from a space where they have rightful access is a small chapter of the story, but it is, nonetheless part of the story. Unfortunately, it’s also an old one as people through history have attempted to prevent photojournalists from witnessing history and sharing the view with others. But as much as leaders want to say “that’s not for your story” or “someone else already did it” they have to accept that their ability to enforce that position may be limited by what the rules allow.

The faculty and staff members who were identified as interfering with photographers’ ability to document (and calling for others to assist in forcible removal) have been identified and called out for their actions. However, they too are not the biggest story of the day and shouldn’t become so either. They should be made aware that what they did runs counter to the rules. They should apologize. They should be held accountable. They should not be threatened or be subject to the internet equivalent of “some muscle.” We need to be better than that.

The rules on the ground shouldn’t be what a group thinks they should be, and while passionate students may not fully understand rules of access and rights for the public and  journalists, the faculty and staff members shouldn’t be making them up either. Other than educating the public, I don’t know what the answer is other than for photographers and other journalists to continue to firmly but politely assert their rights to work in public spaces. The problem is, education for those who don’t want it isn’t going to be much of an answer is it?