Janna Basler, right, who works in the University of Missouri's office of Greek life, tells photographer Tim Tai, to "leave these students alone" in their "personal space." Credit: Mark Schierbecker via AP

A fair amount of the reaction to University of Missouri student protesters’ demand for a “safe space” that’s free from journalists boils down to a contemptuous What don’t these people understand about the First Amendment? I’ve seen this point made more than once by graduates (I’m one) of the university’s famous school of journalism. A second reaction (see columnist Jonah Goldberg’s reference to “delicate little flowers”) has been What don’t these babies understand about growing up?

I’ve written a couple of pieces—here and here—about the Missouri protest as distorted by the safe-space concept’s most egregious champion, communications professor Melissa Click. These pieces fetched me an e-mail from another professor of communications at another university. The points this professor (who doesn’t wish to be named) made obliged me to think harder and longer. Among them were these: 

Where were the campus police in the video by Mark Schierbecker? Wouldn’t some sort of crowd control been appropriate, given the emotional vulnerability of the black student activists? In the absence of such support, couldn’t the situation have gotten much worse if sympathetic faculty and staff (such as Click) hadn’t stepped up as best they could on behalf of the students?

And what about Schierbecker? Is he even a journalist, or was he merely impersonating one? Or can any student barge into another’s private space and claim a First Amendment right to take pictures?

(The professor provided me with a link to this statement from the School of Journalism holding that even in a public area a private space can reasonably be designated that journalists should respect.) 

And why, by the way, did Schierbecker get himself a publicist? And why, apparently, doesn’t he have one any longer.

Students in the video were asking photographer Tim Tai to respect their privacy. You and other journalists immediately took the First Amendment angle, but why not take the ethics angle? Besides, how long were the members of the press kept at bay? Was it “constitutionally unjust” to ask them to wait until their sources were ready to talk to them or be photographed? Ultimately, did journalists get their story and their pictures? Judging from Tai’s pictures, he got what he needed.

I can’t respond directly to every point. It was hard enough to write two commentaries on a fluid situation hundreds of miles away on a campus—albeit my alma mater—I hadn’t set foot on in 20 years. But no, I didn’t see a single police officer in the video.

This absence troubles the professor who wrote me. It doesn’t bother me. Now that I’m thinking twice about Schierbecker’s video, what I see is strong evidence that both the university and the students kept their cool. For all the attention that’s been paid to the students’ my-face-in-your-face confrontation with Tai, I don’t see anything in the video that remotely suggests a tinderbox in need of crowd control. Police flooding a scene where they’re not needed don’t keep the peace—they jeopardize it. A large police presence could have inflamed and insulted the protesters.

The professor linked me to a statement by a self-described friend and publicist repudiating Mark Schierbecker. It is indeed a strange development and I don’t know what to make of it. But as to the important question: Is Schierbecker a journalist? My short answer is this: These days, who isn’t? 

I’ve already linked twice to Schierbecker’s video; there must be hundreds or thousands of other links. What difference does it make whether his pictures did or didn’t show up in the Maneater (the student newspaper he claimed to represent)? His video went viral! The whole world’s seen it! 

One reason journalism these days doesn’t know what to make of itself is that the professor’s right—anyone can claim to be acting as a journalist. In 1996 a banker named Charles Porter won a Pulitzer for a photograph he took of the Oklahoma City bombing, had developed at Walmart, and turned in to the AP only because a friend urged him to. How different is Porter from the passing chem major who pulls out his smartphone at Mizzou’s Carnahan Quad, shoots a 15-second video of milling demonstrators, and posts it on Youtube? The First Amendment was written to assert everyone’s right to say what we think or to run it off on a printing press—it’s not there to define a guild and give it special privileges. If Tim Tai and Mark Schierbecker could claim on First Amendment grounds that the “safe space” was a public space they had a right to be in, so could you. I think—and perhaps the professor thinks—it’s a shame someone confronting Tai (a grown-up like Click, maybe) didn’t turn his First Amendment argument back against him. He could have been made either to explain why he was special or admit that every student on campus had the same right to violate the safe space he had. So which is it? Did he think the safe space had no right to exist? Or did he think it deserved to be respected by everyone else but himself?

The campus cops the professor wishes had been a more palpable presence protecting the students might have been sent in, instead, by a hard-headed administration to clear out the Maginot line in the name of the First Amendment and keep a public space public. That didn’t happen and shouldn’t have happened, and if it had happened most First Amendment champions would have been horrified. I mention this to make the point that it’s not merely the Bill of Rights that determines what we do and don’t do—it’s also common sense.

There’s another wave of commentary that challenges the first sneering, “delicate little flowers” view of safe spaces and coddled students. It’s made me think twice. “Since I was not there, I called someone who was,” wrote the Tribune‘s Clarence Page Friday. Page called Ashley Holt, a broadcast major who’s president of the Missouri chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. Safe space or a free press? Page asked her, and the trouble with her heretical answer is that it makes some sense. “My personal choice was to respect the space,” she told Page.

Page explained: “Amid the confusion and heated emotions of the moment, she said, it became very difficult to cover the news without further inflaming the crowd. So, rather than become ‘part of the story’ she was sent to cover, she and most of the other journalists pulled farther back to give the protesters’ emotions a chance to cool.”

Journalists do this kind of jockeying with sources all the time. The First Amendment doesn’t exempt journalists from needing to know how to get along with people. It makes no more of an impression on the person whose business the reporter is sticking his nose into than the Second Amendment will make on you when somebody’s waving a gun in your face. 

The author Roxane Gay wrote an essay for the front page of the New York Times‘s Sunday Review section headlined “The Seduction of Safety: Those who mock the idea of a safe space are the ones who can take their security for granted.” And she observed, “Rather than examine why the activists needed safe space, most people wrapped themselves in the Constitution, the path of less resistance.” Granting the existence of what she called “safe space extremism,” Gay went on, “And yet, I understand where safe space extremism comes from. When you are marginalized and always unsafe, your skin thins, leaving your blood and bone exposed.”

As the professor who wrote me observes, Tai’s photos are “pretty great.” They justify themselves, and if some of the students in those pictures are embarrassed or horrified or angered to have been caught on camera—well, we don’t really care. Tai can be argued either way: The professor can wonder what Tai was complaining about—he got his pictures, didn’t he? We can respond that he got his pictures because he stood his ground.

A year ago I wrote a piece about a book that’s a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photography, The Pulitzer Prize Photographs: Capture the Moment. It’s a study in ends justifying means. Along with the photos there’s text in which the photographers discuss how they got that picture. “Guess what!” I wrote. “They employed stealth, they concealed information, they defied invitations to get lost. . . . Photography is the job of witness and photographers have a sense of entitlement sufficient to get the job done.” Then again, the paparazzi that harried Princess Di until she was dead also felt entitled. And no Pulitzers there.

Tai will be staring into the cold faces of skeptics the rest of his professional life. The First Amendment won’t cut much ice with any of them.

Schierbecker’s video is evidence that the media came in for disrespect last week at Missouri, especially from a professor who should have known better. But it’s also evidence that a lot of people did a lot of things right. The police stayed out of sight, no blows were struck or rocks thrown, and hundreds of kids held hands and took a big step into adulthood.