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Last Thursday evening, the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators announced the dismissal of Assistant Professor of Communications Melissa Click, who garnered national attention last year when she was caught on video confronting a student journalist who was attempting to take pictures of a protest in which Click was participating.

In the video, Click confronts the photographer, grabbing his camera and gesticulating angrily in his face. "Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!" she calls. A group of protestors gather and advance menacingly on the photographer, as Click continues to egg them on.

Although Click may and likely will appeal her firing, the case poses an interesting conundrum for those concerned about the ability of students and faculty to engage in unfettered expression on campus. On the one hand, Click was, at the least, pretty clearly attempting to impede freedom of the press, obstructing a journalist in pursuit of a story from documenting an event taking place on public property.

Complicating the issue, however, is the fact that established faculty termination procedures were apparently bypassed. Under normal circumstances, a misconduct complaint against a professor would have been considered by the Faculty Council, Missouri’s faculty self-governance body, which would have decided whether any relevant policies had been violated, and if so, whether to terminate Click.

Instead, the decision to terminate Click came directly from the University’s Board of Curators, which, unlike the faculty, is directly accountable to Missouri’s right-leaning state legislature. Members of the legislature, who can vote to dock the University system’s funding, have been bandying Click’s behavior about in an attempt to drum up political support for a threatened $7.7 million budget cut. As such, there is strong circumstantial evidence to indicate that Click’s dismissal may have been motivated by a desire to placate state legislators unsympathetic to campus protests.

On one hand, I firmly believe that, in this case, dismissal would have been the only appropriate outcome of a fair termination process. The kind of physical intimidation that Click facilitated is the precise antithesis of the kind of uninhibited dialogue that academic open expression is supposed to foster. A community that prizes free speech despises the threat of violence for the same reason it rejects institutional enforcement of particular viewpoints: by conditioning security on subscription to particular positions, it limits the range of locations in which the search for truth may be conducted without fear.

Although the principles of free speech apply to an expansive range of behaviors, there are a few narrowly-tailored exceptions to its protections. In every American jurisdiction, one of these exceptions is a crime usually called simple assault, which is defined in Missouri as “purposefully plac[ing] another person” — understood by courts to mean a specific, identifiable person — “in apprehension of immediate physical injury.”

The Columbia, Mo. prosecutor’s office determined that Click’s actions met that standard. Committing assault is certainly grounds for termination from any job, whether it enjoys the protections of academic freedom or not.

However, the seriousness of Click’s wrongdoing doesn’t diminish her entitlement as a faculty member to a fair, impartial termination process. Self-governance is crucial to maintaining the Missouri faculty’s academic freedom, which is in turn essential to maintaining the academy’s ability to do what it is supposed to do: pursue truth and new knowledge.

If Missouri professors must live with the fear that their jobs depend on staying in the good graces of the Board of Curators and their bosses at the state legislature, they will hesitate to exercise their rights as surely as will a student journalist who fears violence at the hands of an angry mob. An independent professoriate, whose standards of conduct deliberately take careful account of academic freedom, is the proper body to decide such a case, not a legislature or an administration.

Without qualification, the board of the University of Missouri erred in violating its commitments to these principles. Genuine belief in fundamental fairness in higher education means defending the rights of those with whom one profoundly disagrees and whose actions one deeply disapproves of with equal fervor as one would those of close friends and ideological allies.

Too many in academia have shown themselves willing to apply double-standards based on their own intellectual biases. The same advocates who have condemned Click’s attempt to deprive a student of his rights must now also challenge what appears to be Missouri’s attempt to deprive her of hers.

ALEC WARD is a College junior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is alecward@sas.upenn. edu. Follow him on Twitter @ TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” formerly “Talking Backward,” usually appears every other Wednesday.

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