Academic Freedom

Melissa Click’s Inbox

January 13, 2016

Mark Schierbecker, YouTube
Melissa Click, ordering a student journalist to leave a protest on the U. of Missouri campus quad on November 9. By that evening, her email inbox was overflowing.
Just past 8 p.m., on what was surely the worst day of her professional life, a message appeared in Melissa Click’s email inbox.

"Are you OK?" it asked. She wasn’t.

Earlier that day — November 9, 2015 — Ms. Click had participated in a protest at the University of Missouri at Columbia, where she works as an assistant professor of communication. Students, along with sympathetic members of the Missouri faculty and staff, had formed a protective ring around the protesters' encampment on the main quad and forbidden members of the media to enter.

Turmoil at Mizzou

Last fall student protests over race relations rocked the University of Missouri's flagship campus, in Columbia, and spawned a wave of similar unrest at colleges across the country. Read more Chronicle coverage of the turmoil in Missouri and its aftermath.

Mark Schierbecker, a student who was filming a confrontation between protesters and a young photojournalist named Tim Tai, managed to slip through the perimeter. Ms. Click confronted Mr. Schierbecker after he identified himself as a member of the media. When he refused to leave, she grabbed at his camera, then shouted, "Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!"

Mr. Schierbecker uploaded the video to YouTube. It soon went viral, and Ms. Click, along with Janna Basler, an assistant director of Greek life who also appeared in Mr. Schierbecker's video, were thrust to the center of the debate over whether colleges were privileging "safe spaces" for aggrieved students over free speech.

By the evening, Ms. Click’s inbox was spilling over with emails from an assortment of angry First Amendment enthusiasts. A note of concern from Angela Speck, a professor of astrophysics at the university, stood out as an expression of sympathy.

"I have seen some stuff suggesting people are gunning for Melissa," the professor wrote to Ms. Click and Ms. Basler. "So I wanted to check in and see if you're both OK."

Ms. Click wrote back: "Oh yes, I am getting rape and death threats. I am definitely not OK."

She did get a number of menacing notes. Others were vulgar, sanctimonious, histrionic, sympathetic, mean-spirited, or simply bizarre. The Chronicle obtained hundreds of email messages sent to Ms. Click's university account after filing a public-records request. (We also requested Ms. Basler's emails, which the university has not yet released.) We were curious to know what kinds of messages people send to a professor on a day when public opinion has deemed her an enemy of the state based on 12 seconds of video. What did those people feel Ms. Click needed to hear from them, personally?

The university handed over approximately 1,100 pages of emails received that day and the next day, and some patterns emerged. Broadly speaking, 12 kinds of messages landed in Ms. Click's inbox:

1. You should be ashamed/fired!



This was the most popular choice. The words "shame," "ashamed," or "shameful" appear 238 times in the emails.

Variations on "embarrassment" came in second, at 104, followed by "disgrace" at 98.

About seven dozen people wrote to tell Ms. Click she should be fired, and one person suggested she be set on fire.

2. Primers on the First Amendment



The First Amendment was mentioned 242 times in the emails. Fourteen people sent Ms. Click the text of the amendment. Several referred her to the entire Constitution.

One message contained, in its subject line, the words "Constitutional Rights," followed by an emoji of a smiling person wearing a pointy hat.

"We are under heavy surveillance at all times," it read, "and it's unconstitutional but it's happening so the illusion of privacy just because you can't see a camera in front of you is futile."

3. Unflattering comparisons to 20th-century political regimes



Ms. Click's detractors were eager to associate her with "fascists" and their ilk.

They said her actions were reminiscent of North Korea, the Sturmabteilung (i.e., Nazi enforcers — the writer included a Wikipedia link), the Ayatollah's Iran, Mao's China, Stalin's Russia, Putin's Russia, and George Wallace's Alabama.

"Cuba calls," wrote one person. He advised Ms. Click to "call for muscle to help you pack."

It's not clear if any of those people were history scholars, although the guy who cited 1960s Alabama was a marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

4. Angry notes from journalists



Journalists took special umbrage at Ms. Click's attempt to keep cameras out of the protest camp on the Missouri quad, though their criticisms tended to be more courteous than others'.

"You have proven that you do not believe in basic constitutional values, especially the one that is so critical to an amazing network of Mizzou graduates," wrote a news editor at CNN.

"I’ve been defending the protesters on Facebook for days, and you just blew a huge hole in the argument I was making in support of their legitimate grievances," wrote a reporter for Bloomberg News. "I don’t get it. I just don't get it."

Graduates of Missouri's highly regarded journalism school, where Ms. Click held a courtesy appointment at the time, seemed to take the incident personally.

"I am embarrassed for my alma mater," wrote one alumnus, a photojournalist for the European Pressphoto Agency, "and do hope your department considers this video when you are up for tenure."

5. Media requests from journalists



When journalists weren't scolding Ms. Click, they were courting her.

She got emails from an editor, two reporters, and a blogger at The Washington Post. A senior writer at the Chicago Reader. A breaking-news reporter at New York's Daily News. A reporter at the local National Public Radio affiliate. A reporter in NPR's Washington, D.C., headquarters. A radio reporter at CBS. A contributor to VICE News. A web writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education. A producer with CNN Tonight With Don Lemon.

"You are all over the news, as you probably know by now," said the Post editor.

"I’m sure you're getting bombarded with messages today, but felt it is only fair to reach out," wrote the Daily News reporter.

"It'd be a chance to clear things up — give your side of the story," wrote the VICE contributor.

"The context isn't clear at all," wrote the Reader writer.

"It's a complicated equation, and I'd like to talk to you about it," wrote the national NPR reporter.

"CNN Tonight With Don Lemon is currently the highest rated show at CNN among young viewers," said the producer, "and we would love to hear from you."

6. Genuine support



They were few and far between, but Ms. Click did get some sympathetic emails.

"As one communication educator to another, this is a short note of my expression of support with your actions today," wrote a visiting assistant professor of rhetoric at Northern Illinois University. She praised Ms. Click for staying true to "your students, your discipline, and your overall core beliefs."

An English instructor at the University of Arkansas at Monticello thanked Ms. Click for sticking up for her students. "I've been telling everyone, including my students: I would've done the same damn thing," he wrote. "Congratulations, and keep up the good work."

"I understand and appreciate the need for safe space for protesters," wrote another supporter. "I get that it's not about freedom of the press, but rather about respecting the protesters, and their safety (and anonymity, if desired)."

One message asked Ms. Click not to lose her spirit, and to speak up about why she had been so angry in the video. "We understand you," it said.

7. Fake support



"I appreciate your actions," one person wrote. Why? "I always like telling my girlfriend that my journalism school (Syracuse) is better than her journalism school (Missouri). Today you confirmed that I am correct!"

"I support you, Melissa,” read the subject line of another email. "Psych! You’re an asshole," read the body.

8. I’m not mad, I’m disappointed …



Disappointment wasn't as common as outrage, but it was mentioned more than three dozen times in the emails, often by writers who were sympathetic to Ms. Click's cause but not her methods.

A person professing to be "a minority, born and raised in the Show Me State," said he didn’t want the professor to be fired, but he was disappointed that she had called in the "muscle" on a student.

"Please," he wrote with no trace of irony, "utilize the most important muscle of all: your heart."

9. Threats and horrorcore
There were some of these:

"I hope your mother dies of brain cancer."

"I plan to belly-laugh when someone shanks you or sets you on fire in the next week."

"Sport should be made of you, in which you are passed around a cell block for a week straight, then cut loose to be hunted down and killed. If hell exists, I want to be there to take part in your eternal agony. You do not deserve a marked grave."

"I hope you're gang-raped by some of the very animals with whom you're so enamored."

Ms. Click reported that last one to the campus police.

10. 'This Week in Cats' and other digital subscriptions
Maybe Ms. Click chose the worst day of her career as an opportunity to sign up for a bunch of digital newsletters. More likely, somebody else signed her up as a prank.

In any case, she received confirmations to receive Buzzfeed's "Dog a Day," "Dude a Day," and "This Week in Cats," plus subscriptions to dozens of techie news sites.

11. Impertinent ax-grinding
"Your football team is trash," noted one writer.

"I live out east with plenty of good universities … with the exception of UMass Amherst … another left-wing overrun-with-minorities school," wrote another. (Ms. Click got her doctorate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.) He recommended that she move to Zimbabwe.

Someone sent her a link, along with a note calling her "pathetic." The link was to an article about how everyone who thought the University of Alabama's football dominance had ended owed Nick Saban, the head football coach there, an apology.

"At 87 years of age I am ashamed to tell anyone I was once a reporter," another person wrote. "Instead I say I am an artist who writes occasionally."

12. Meta-outrage
"I am just a run-of-the-mill 41-year-old from Charlotte, N.C. I am in no way interested in you, your school, your program, or your students. However, here you are … reading an email from me about how disgusted I am with you.

"Think about that for a second."

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.

Rio Fernandes contributed to this report.


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