The Three Hidden Victims of the Mizzou Protests

[![Stanford students gather in White Plaza in "#InSolidarityWithMizzou" event. Source: Tamer Shabani](/content/images/stanford_stands-1024x683.jpg)](/content/images/stanford_stands.jpg)
Stanford students gather in White Plaza in “#InSolidarityWithMizzou” event. *Source: Stanford University*
Racism and protests at the University of Missouri over the past week have been met with a blizzard of social media support and events held in solidarity at Stanford and other universities across the nation. We cannot dispute the legitimate pain that people are feeling, or the need for policy change when clear instances of racism can be identified. However, despite the emotional frailty of the situation, we must not forget the broader picture of what has taken place. The protesters at Mizzou and the students at Stanford who gathered in White Plaza today exercised their right to free speech and assembly to protest very real injustices around the country. That said, these very protestors are creating their own victims that deserve a voice.

1. Journalists

Photojournalist Tim Tai was publicly vilified and violently pushed by protesters and a professor when reporting on the Mizzou protests that were held in a public space to attract attention to a cause. Journalists cover events like the Mizzou protests to inform the public. Critics of the media at the protests have contended that the media is ‘unsafe’. Even if this assertion were valid, it is crucial that freedom of the press, especially in a public forum such as a protest, trump concerns about unfavorable articles or student offense.

If we set a precedent of precluding journalists from covering public events, then hardworking reporters will be in even worse condition than they are. The field may seem glamorous, but the median income for journalists in the United States is a meager $38,000, while median household income is above $50,000. We should respect those journalists who accept low incomes and miserable working conditions to cover events for the public interest. Since when does a protest – whose aim is to draw attention to a set of issues – actively shun those wishing to cover it?

**2. Professors**

Mizzou protesters have demanded “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum throughout all campus departments and units, [that are] mandatory for all students, faculty, staff, and administration.” Many Stanford students have echoed these demands in the past few days. While undoubtedly well-intentioned, these demands threaten the academic freedom required to create an open academic environment. If a panel of moderators is able to cancel or amend the content of any class on the basis of insensitivity, professors are naturally more likely to self-moderate and avoid topics that may broach sensitive areas, leaving students unstimulated and vital discussions underdeveloped.

Moreover, a paradigm in which professors can be called out on a whim feeds into the precedent set by other, similar impromptu witch-hunts against faculty. Erika Christakis. Andrew Pessin. John McAdams. These are just a few professors who have spoken freely about their political views – many in incredibly nuanced ways – and have seen their careers put on the line after being vilified by students and media. Students called for Christakis’ resignation after she sent an email in support of free speech with respect to Halloween costumes at Yale University; activists launched a national vilification campaign against Pessin after he posted a Facebook status voicing his views on the Gaza conflict at Connecticut College; and a panel nearly ousted McAdams after he criticized one student’s treatment of another in a debate about gay marriage at Marquette University.

Professors may say things that upset us, but we must give them the flexibility to teach us without fear. While there will always be uniform standards to which professors must be held, over-sensitive and subjective suspensions create a climate of fear that make professors afraid of talking at all. Universities would be meaningless without professors’ presence in lectures and discussions, and it is our privilege – and duty – to reap the benefits of their unconventional views that challenge our own. We must maintain an academic environment in which professors feel comfortable going off-piste, or we threaten the learning and growth that prepares us for our futures.

3. Truth

Mizzou Student Body President Payton Head claimed he was “working with the MUPD, the state trooper and the National Guard” after the “KKK has been confirmed to be sighted on campus”. Less than two hours later, both claims were proven false and Mr Head retracted his statement. Why would a student body President, and not law enforcement or the administration, work with state troops and the National Guard? Despite the improbability and eventual falsification of Mr Head’s claims, many Stanford students rushed to support him and condemn his detractors. Although we can only speculate on students’ motives, the instantaneous acceptance of these incredulous claims likely stems from a desire to adhere to a preconceived narrative. But not everything we read and hear is the truth. We do not doubt narratives of racism at Mizzou, but we also believe that claims should be assessed by their merits before rushing to believe them and share them with others.

Truths can also offend us, and the reaction to the protests threatens to silence those who voice unpopular opinions they believe to be true. Mizzou has asked students to report “hurtful speech” to the police and campus authorities. Although racial epithets have no place on a college campus, speech voicing unpopular opinions or criticizing the protesters’ demands could also cause offense or hurt – but it deserves to be heard. This is especially concerning when emotions are running high; even the slightest offense can trigger a hurt reaction. Given inevitable human error causes us to believe things irrationally in periods of high emotion and conviction, we must rigorously question what we choose to believe in times of panic.

The events at Mizzou have been deeply troubling. What matters most, however, is establishing how best to move on from these incidents, and to establish changes at the university to prevent such rifts from appearing again. Without journalists to report objectively on what is happening, professors to challenge our assumptions and think creatively, and a consensus around the facts that allows reasonable decisions to be made, such changes will only ever be transient.

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