Odd Newsmakers and Provocative Speech

Melissa Click went too far when she called for immediate violence against student reporters, andPete Santilli may have overstepped the journalist’s role when he supported the militants’ occupation of a federal animal refuge.

Mar 2, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Two odd newsmakers are testing our tolerance for provocative speech. Melissa Click, the clueless assistant professor of communications at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), went too far when she called for immediate violence against student reporters.Pete Santilli, the Ohio-based YouTube talk show host, may have overstepped the journalist’s role when he supported the militants’ occupation of a federal animal refuge. Click is pathetic. Finally, she’s been prosecuted and fired. I’ll get back to her in a moment. First, however, is Santilli. He’s been indicted and defends his actions and words as advocacy journalism.If he’s convicted and his conviction survives inevitable appeals, it could chill mainstream journalists who take sides, as in, say, Fox News reporters cheering on tea party demonstrators. So far, from what federal prosecutors have said, this is a question of the content of his speech. However, his use of YouTube rather than mainstream TV underlies his prosecution. This is no surprise. The Obama administration’s hostility to news media intensifies when new media and its practitioners are targeted. Santilli denies being one of the angry men who occupied the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. He arrived after the takeover. However, once embedded, his YouTube broadcasts were clearly sympathetic to the armed protesters. That, he says, does not negate his role as a journalist there to cover the event from the inside. Some of the time, he posted from among the protesters. Other times, Santilli joined traditional journalists at government press conferences.After their arrests, Santilli and others were charged with conspiracy to "impede U.S. officers from doing their duties by force, intimidation or threat.” All pleaded not guilty. Santilli says the First Amendment protected his activities and his reporting did not cross into federal crime. "The United States Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment’s protections of the press extend beyond recognized, mainstream media," he argued in a post-arrest court filing. I hope it’s that clear. State shield laws, Department of Justice guidelines for prosecutors and courts rarely appreciate new media.Conspiracy is an ugly accusation. Santilli doesn’t have to be a participant. Just talking with others about a crime can be enough.Picture this: a trusted WCPO-TV reporter sits in on a gathering where activists plan a Fountain Square demonstration. She learns that the activists will engage in civil disobedience to provoke police on camera. The reporter and her videographer are on the square when the protesters arrive and the midday news show goes live. As planned, demonstrators disregard police orders to disperse and are arrested. Most “go limp,” forcing officers to drag or carry them to police vehicles.Was the reporter a coconspirator? She was in on the planning of a crime. In Oregon, federal prosecutors cite YouTube videos as evidence of his role in a conspiracy. Santilli says the videos will prove he was a reporter, not a conspirator. Whether he was “doing” journalism may end up being more important than whether he was a journalist. Or his case could further cloud efforts to define journalists and journalism today. The Huffington Post says one video includes protest leader Ammon Bundy telling Santilli off camera to "let everybody know" that "we're continuing the stand.” In Oregon, mainstream reporters also told the world what was transpiring and what the protesters said. 

In other videos, Santilli appears to be

calling people to join the occupiers

. "I want one hundred thousand people out here, shoulder to shoulder, uh, unarmed.” 

Sounds like Black Lives Matter: Cincinnati, using The Cincinnati Enquirer to tell everyone how to join the next demonstration.

"It's really just a question of whether he did anything illegal," Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Huffpost. "There's some references to the fact that he's calling people to come join them, but even that's not necessarily illegal. It kind of throws his objectivity in question, certainly, but I don't think he's claiming to be objective.” 

Back to Mizzou and Click. Twice last fall, she screwed up seriously at black student protests… on camera. 

Most infamously, she called for “some muscle” against white student reporters/videographers trying to cover a Nov. 9 black student protest on campus. 

Her call to violence and shoving student videographer Mark Schierbecker brought a charge of misdemeanor assault. (The charge is to be dropped if she completes community service.) 

Schierbecker’s video of Click’s rage went viral. Her respect for the First Amendment is as dim as her appreciation of modern technology, i.e., videography.

It’s worth repeating: Click was an untenured faculty member in the communications department, not Mizzou’s historic journalism school, which ended her unofficial role in its programs.   

Click explains her words and actions, saying she was trying to protect black students’ “safe space” in the middle of campus for their group, Concerned Student 1950. 

Apparently, Click and fellow traveling faculty believe that students who feel themselves victims of racism are entitled to silence other students’ First Amendment rights. 

Click’s willingness to call for violence to silence student journalists emboldened the same black student organization more recently. 

They threatened the same white student videographer/reporter with police action and accused him of racism when he tried to cover another public meeting last month. That was resolved without police or violence, but the black students effectively prevented the reporting by moving and closing their meeting.

Meanwhile, discovery of an earlier video added to Click’s problems. It shows her confronting police trying to cope with black student protesters during the Oct. 10 Mizzou homecoming parade. 

The Columbia Missourian, a local daily, published the video. In it, Click intervenes between police and students trying to disrupt the parade. 

Click can be heard yelling at the cops, "Get your hands off the children," and "Get your fucking hands off me!” She escaped without being charged. 

Click told The Missourian, "I remember thinking, stupidly, that if as a white person I put myself in front of the students, that maybe they wouldn’t push me.”

Mizzou announced last week it fired Click. It addition to her earlier suspension, Mizzou banned her from campus. 

Santilli might yet defend his words and actions successfully, and that would be good for everyone but the ambitious federal prosecutor. 

All of us would benefit as well if Click’s dismissal and prosecution deterred other academics from trying to bar coverage of newsworthy campus events.  

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]