No place for mob mentality when First Amendment rights are threatened

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johnny coronel mugshotBy Jonathan Coronel

Editor’s note: The author, a graduate of Corona del Sol High School, is a sophomore at Arizona State University. He plans to pursue a career in law.

The asterisk by the First Amendment grows larger and larger every day, a condition made painfully evident by viral videos showing students who lack basic civic knowledge imposing their will on journalists and running roughshod over the most fundamental rights.

The University of Missouri has been shaken by protests the past several weeks over alleged racism on campus. Such incidents as a swastika drawn on a bathroom wall and a drunken student hurling a racial slur at a black student gained national attention when the college’s football team threatened to boycott its next game if university president Tim Wolfe refused to resign. In the midst of this intense pressure, Wolfe acquiesced and stepped down Nov. 9.

The merits of what students and football players did to protest a situation they viewed as racism and injustice is beside the point here: They exercised their First Amendment rights and were legally justified in doing so. The real problem is how student protesters at Mizzou characterized themselves as nothing more than fairweather friends of the First Amendment.

This was on full display on the university quad last week.

“You need to get out—this is our healing space,” student journalist Tim Tai was told when he tried to take photos of the protests. Tai was simply trying to do his job and document the demonstration being staged on the university’s public quad, where hundreds of protesters had gathered.

Little did Tai know that college students had recently contrived a form of extralegal protection through which they can cordon off any public area and declare it a “safe space,” where views that hurt their feelings or make them feel unsafe are not allowed.

Who knew amending the Bill of Rights was so simple?

Almost immediately Tai was confronted by a swarm of students telling him (incorrectly!) that he had no right to be there. Although Tai tried to explain that the First Amendment protects his right to document their protest just as it does their right to protest, the mob-mentality trumped common sense and Tai was pushed away, blocked and his voice drowned out by students who appeared to have skipped eighth grade civics class.

Mark Schierbecker was another journalist who tried to film the protest that day. As he tried to do the job for which he was there, he was confronted by university professor Melissa Click, a communications and journalism instructor who told him that, while she did not agree with his effort to intervene in the protest, she at least understood his First Amendment right to document it. Unfortunately, beyond that, she did quite the opposite, calling for “muscle” to get Schierbecker away and even grabbing his cell phone while he filmed her.

This mentality at the University of Missouri is deeply disturbing, not just to journalists but to all those who value free speech as intended by the U.S. Constitution. The idea that limits on free speech should be subject to other peoples’ feelings or what makes them uncomfortable is a dangerous one.

Furthermore, students at Missouri should realize how self-defeating their actions are.

The media can be a boon or a bane to movements. Missouri students should recognize that the media have a history of being pivotal in facilitating change in society at large. Imagine how differently the civil rights movement likely would have been had Martin Luther King and other leaders taken on the mentality of Missouri students and shunned journalists trying to document their marches, sit-ins and boycotts.

The whole point of a protest is to gain visibility for whatever issue one is speaking out against, not to create a “safe,” media-free space.

Shunning the media from a protest not only defeats the purpose of holding a display in public, it is also illegal.

This past week, students across the nation have joined what has become a viral movement, expressing that they stand with the students at Mizzou.

But anyone who values freedom of speech should condemn the students at Missouri or elsewhere who think it is acceptable to trample on others’ First Amendment rights.

Encouraging lawlessness is just as deplorable as engaging in it. Once we start making the right to free speech dependent on other peoples’ feelings of safety or discomfort, we forfeit that right.

This is a nation of laws, not feelings, and we should think twice before restricting our most fundamental rights based on the notoriously volatile emotions of college kids.

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