It’s stunning how quickly the story in Columbia, Missouri, has turned from a debate about racism in the university community to a story about free speech—and attempts to limit it.
Most prominently, the video of a crowd intimidating a photographer—a student journalist—and attempting to block him from doing his job went viral. Tim Tai, the photographer, asserted his First Amendment rights with impressive poise and calm, given the pressure on him. (On Tuesday, the faculty of the School of Journalism were voting on whether to strip Melissa Click—an assistant professor of communication shown calling for “muscle” to push a reporter out—of her “courtesy” appointment in journalism.) Suddenly, the focus of the University of Missouri story has become about free speech.
That’s even more true after an email Tuesday from university police, circulated by many people on Twitter, about “Reporting Hateful and/or Hurtful Speech.”
The email seems practically tailor-made to upset free-speech advocates—particularly the closing lines: “While cases of hurtful speech are not crimes, if the individual(s) identified are students, MU’s Office of Student Conduct can take disciplinary action.”
The email is, of course, correct: Hateful and hurtful speech are not crimes. It is also correct that many forms of hurtful or hateful speech are potentially sanctionable under the university’s disciplinary policy. For example, the code bans harassment:
Harassment in violation of the University’s anti-discrimination policies, is unwelcome verbal or physical conduct, on the basis of actual or perceived membership in a protected class as defined in the University’s anti-discrimination policies, that creates a hostile environment by being sufficiently severe or pervasive and objectively offensive that it interferes with, limits or denies the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from educational programs or activities or employment access, benefits or opportunities.
It also bars “Threatening or Intimidating Behaviors, defined as written or verbal conduct that causes a reasonable expectation of injury to the health or safety of any person or damage to any property or implied threats or acts that cause a reasonable fear of harm in another.” These standards are necessarily flexible and ambiguous, but that also means they’re dangerously vague. Some things are clearly threatening or bullying, but many are less clear. In an environment where, as the video of Tim Tai shows, some members of the university community feel their First Amendment rights are being trampled simply by Tai’s presence exercising his own, who knows what might be characterized as intimidation?