A year ago this fall, during three days of heightened racial tension and student protest at the University of Missouri, Assistant Professor of Communications Melissa Click was videotaped calling for “some muscle” to keep a student photographer from approaching the “safe space” requested by Concerned Student 1950, a predominately Black activist organization named for the year Mizzou first admitted Black students that had spent months decrying the pervasiveness of campus racism and more recently set up a tent encampment on the quad.
Campus tension was high. Student protest leader Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike . The highly-ranked Mizzou football team refused to play until University President Tim Wolfe was fired. When he finally resigned on November 9, crowds converged on the tents—and Click stepped in to help.
Butler ended his hunger strike. Mizzou football resumed. Possibly because the centerpiece of media coverage was the repeatedly screened “more muscle” meme, the portrayal of Click excised her fear for protesters’ welfare as well as her 12 years of University service. The deluge of racist, sexist and, sometimes, threatening, emails, tweets and posts began soon after—and have never entirely ceased.
For better and for worse, since walking the talk and putting her body where her ideology was, Melissa Click’s life has never been the same.
On November 10, Click issued a statement of apology. “I regret the strategies and language I used,” she said, “and sincerely apologize to the MU community and, journalists at large, for my behavior, and also for the way my actions have shifted the attention away from the students’ campaign for justice.” Click pled not guilty to a charge of misdemeanor assault for her actions and received community service with one-year probation in lieu of prosecution.
In December, 117 Missouri legislators signed a letter calling her actions “inappropriate, illegal and unacceptable for a faculty member” and disparaging her well-respected work in media studies. While grudgingly acknowledging that “the study of pop culture may have value,” the letter asserted that Click’s research on books and films like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey was unacceptable to their constituents.
By January of this year, she had been suspended. Weeks later, another video emerge—this one showing Concerned Student 1950 activists blocking President Wolfe’s car in the previous October’s homecoming parade. It showed police pushing the protesters towards the curb and Click using an expletive as she stood between them. In February, the University fired Click from a position she’d held for 12 years. Her termination appeal was rejected on March 16.
In May, The American Association of University Professors issued a statement based on an independent investigation declaring Click did not receive due process according to University policy and warning against this dangerous precedent. This fall, Melissa Click found a position teaching as a lecturer at Gonzaga University. Soon after, news articles and blog posts appeared online rehashing her involvement in the Mizzou protests and labeling her a “disgraced” professor; sexist and racist posts targeting Click have since appeared on Gonzaga’s Facebook page. Not surprisingly, these articles failed to acknowledge either the national opposition to Click’s termination or any of the questions raised about the conservative legislature’s influence on the University of Missouri Board of Curators’ decision to fire her.
Melissa Click stood with Mizzou. She did not simply retweet the hashtag that was trending this time last year; she tried to the best of her ability to protect Concerned Students 1950.
In a conversation with Ms., Click looked back at the painful time.
How would you describe your relationship with Concerned Students 1950?
I didn’t have a relationship with them. That is one of the things that the conservative press has misconstrued. I’ve seen myself listed as their communications director, for example. I saw them at the Homecoming Parade in October. I stood with them for a few minutes and afterwards, they went their way and I went mine.
Why did you join them on the Quad?
I was on campus on Saturday and saw the Chancellor. I told him I was worried that somebody was going to come and shoot them. He said, “I am, too, but I don’t feel that having a police presence here is the right thing to do.” And obviously, in Colombia, Post-Ferguson, I get that having police might not have been the right thing. But, on the other hand, I thought these kids are sitting in the middle of campus and anything could happen to them. That’s what drew me there. I saw in social media a lot of ugly and horrible things about the student group that made me concerned about their safety on the quad. So I went to visit them. I basically worked behind the scenes organizing their stuff and drying out their tents and that is pretty much all I did. I worked with them all day on Sunday, which was November 8. There was a faculty walkout and a graduate student walkout to support them on the morning of the ninth.
Was there a discussion of a need for a “safe space” on November 9?
I don’t recall a moment that was like, “Hey, we need a safe space. Can you help us?” It was sort of like, the president stepped down, “we need to find Jonathan Butler and get him here so we can plan a press conference. We need a few moments in our tent to talk.” There was chaos. All the 200 and some people made that circle. I helped to form it and I helped to maintain the security of it. Everything that you saw on video was what we were dealing with while they were having their time to meet and to call Jonathan.
After these events, how did this impact your relationship with this student group?
In that moment, I was very protective of them and I think they are now very protective of me. I was very cautious at their camp. First of all, I’m a faculty member, which makes me outside of the group and second, I’m a white woman, which puts me outside of their group. And I didn’t want to come in saying, “Hey, I’m here now! What can I do for you?” They are kind of a force of nature. They are the most amazing human beings. I saw myself as someone who was there taking orders not making orders.
Do you believe that you violated anyone’s First Amendment rights during the protest?
I’ve never seen any legal scholar actually say I did. There was a really great piece in one of our local papers citing the President of The First Amendment Center [Ken Paulson], He said he didn’t see a violation, he saw two people struggling over their First Amendment rights. …But we did repeatedly say—and, of course, there’s no video being shared of me saying this— “The students want to talk to the media. They need a few moments to gather themselves together but they will talk to the media.”
Interim Chancellor Hank Foley said your actions directly violate the core values of our university.” How do respond to that?
I think standing up for MU student is a core value. MU has these words as our values and “discovery” is one of them. I don’t think there was any discovery to the way the University responded to my actions. I don’t think they tried to understand. The University left all of us out there on that day. I don’t have crowd control training as a faculty member. Later, the [former] President wrote this rambling email that was leaked that said he had the FBI and The Missouri State Highway Patrol telling him that there was potentially something dangerous going to happen that day. Yet, there were no police, no one there, no plan to keep order there. And I think firing me covers this up to a certain degree.
The core values of the University are Respect, Responsibility, Discovery and Excellence. I don’t think the University took responsibility for their role in what happened. I think once the Missouri legislature got involved, things ran off the rails and I think once the Curator put the piece in the Washington Post saying he thought I should be fired. I think there was no turning back from those things. The University was in crisis and it could have, in my opinion, adhered to its core values and stood up for students and faculty, who were there that day, doing their best in a difficult situation where they were left unprotected or they could scapegoat somebody, try to cut the problem out and move on as quickly as they could.
They chose the less honorable of those options. And it hasn’t really saved them much—they are still in turmoil.
How and why do you think your scholarship come under attack over the course of the investigation and on numerous social media spaces?
I think if I studied nanotechnology that probably would’ve happened. You know, as media scholar, those of us who study popular culture, our research still seems suspect to many. The legislature has long ridiculed faculty at MU that they felt taught things that were not worthy of scholarly attention. So that went along with what was already their shtick. But I think the fact that I am a woman…and that my interests, somewhat ironically, my scholarship, in part, focuses on why particular forms of gendered are publically ridiculed. It’s not rocket science to me to figure out how that happened to me because I study how that happens to other people.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I thought a lot about whether I would go to the protest that day and, of course, I would. I, of course, would not change anything about my support of the students. I regret being sarcastic with the fellow who was recording me. I would have interacted with him more peacefully. I don’t remember saying what I said to the police officer—everything happened so fast. I regret trusting my university to treat me fairly. When that video was released of me swearing at the police officer at the Homecoming Parade, someone asked me “your tenure case was being considered, why would step up and do that?” I thought: What kind of human being stands and watches people who are being berated by a crowd and doesn’t step forward to stand with them? What kind of person who has seen the video of UC Davis students being pepper sprayed leaves a group of Black students alone with police shoving them? What kind of person does that?
I remember at the Homecoming Parade, standing and, watching with horror, as community members were just awful to those students. This is like the 1960s to me. I was thinking, are you going to do something about this or are you just going to stand here? It’s like with bullying, if you see something happening, do you walk away or do you intervene? And I always wanted to be the kind of person to intervene but I didn’t know until tested if I was. After it was over, and I went back to my family, I said to my partner, I think something just happened to me that’s going to change me forever.
Do I want to fight against racism? Absolutely! I sort of see myself as an all-purpose advocate for people on the right side of things. Would I do it again? Yes. I’ll just be more careful about how I do it next time.