Melissa Click Credit: MARK SCHIERBECKER

Melissa Click is the University of Missouri communications professor made infamous last fall by a video that showed her calling for “muscle” to remove the student shooting the video from a “safe space” for student protesters. When the video went viral it did more than humiliate her: it handed everyone who disapproved of the mostly black protesters—whose claims of campus racism and demands that the university president resign rubbed plenty of people the wrong way—a shrieking white woman to scapegoat. 

Click immediately apologized for getting so carried away, but this did her no good: journalists throughout the land (like me) denounced her for not acting her age or knowing the first thing about the Constitution, and when Missouri conservatives turned on her they found her naked to her enemies.

But the other day, Eric Zorn spoke up for Click in the Tribune, and I salute him for it.

Click’s behavior was “disgraceful,” wrote Zorn, “but it wasn’t criminal.” (In fact, the only “muscle” in evidence was the one operating Click’s vocal cords.) Nevertheless, two and a half months after the fact, the city prosecutor of Columbia, Missouri, had just charged her with misdemeanor assault in the third degree. Laws against assault, Zorn observed, aren’t meant “to protect us from every person who looks at us cross-eyed or warns us to get a move on or else. They are certainly not meant to be used as bludgeons in political fights.”
Which is what the Mizzou protests turned into. Did black Missouri football players promise to sit out the next game unless the president was axed? (Which he then was.) A Republican legislator wrote a bill to revoke the scholarship of any varsity athlete who pulled that stunt again. Is faculty misconduct supposed to be handled by the chancellor? A month ago, 18 Republicans from the senate and nearly 100 from the house—in each chamber an overwhelming majority of the majority party—signed a letter telling the university’s board of curators that Click was unfit to teach. Her “comments served to inflame an already caustic situation that was clearly out of line,” said the letter, this description of the protest making it pretty clear just what the Republicans thought of it. Noting that at the time Click had no classroom duties because of a research project she was doing, the legislators marveled that she “spent her paid time off from teaching to assault students, harass citizens of Missouri, and work in contravention of our Constitution.”

Click has become Missouri’s Obamacare, the thing Republicans line up to denounce. 

Having received their marching orders, the curators voted to suspend Click with pay pending a further investigation into her behavior. The executive committee of the university’s Faculty Council protested, noting that the unilateral action by the curators (not to mention the legislature) violated Mizzou’s own rules and regulations. Click was being punished for improper conduct, not simply without due process but even though no one had ever filed a charge formally accusing her of any. Some faculty members had considered doing so, the executive committee acknowledged, but decided not to because Click had “issued a heartfelt apology” and suffered “vitriolic attacks [that] included threats of death and rape sent to her University email account and made by telephone.” Perhaps all this “constituted more than sufficient punishment.”

And in case it didn’t, last week Click accepted a deal with the city prosecutor dropping the charge in return for 20 hours of community service.

The best thing that might be said about the Melissa Click video is that it gave Missouri a teaching moment. Dean Dorhman, a Republican house member from Sedalia, seized the moment. He submitted a bill that would require all college students to pass a three-hour class on freedom of speech. At a hearing on the bill, he played a video of Melissa Click calling for muscle and Yale students shouting at a professor, and said, “They don’t really have a concept of the First Amendment.”

I’m a long way from Columbia, but it appears to me Dorhman’s concept of  the First Amendment equates freedom of speech with decorum, and he interprets the Mizzou protest as a threat to this freedom, not an exercise of it. It’s possible to think such things and still offer a little mercy to an unruly professor like Click; but Dorhman is one of the legislators who signed the letter telling the curators to get rid of her.