Assistant Professor Melissa Click, of the University of Missouri Department of Communications, became involuntarily famous as the star of this short video in which she called for “some muscle” to block a student journalist’s access to campus protesters. She was later charged with third degree assault, but the charge was dismissed upon her apology and agreement to perform community service. She has also publicly apologized. (Another video later surfaced from a different event, in which Click seems to have interfered with MU police at the Homecoming parade.)
Normative practice among American institutions of higher education is that a faculty member with indefinite tenure—or a probationary faculty member within the term of appointment—may be dismissed only following demonstration of cause in an adjudicative hearing before a faculty body.
Click’s internal appeal of the Curators’ action was rejected yesterday. The case is no doubt headed to court
Putting aside the merits of the case, and even the procedures, I want to raise a question about Click’s appeals strategy, in which she evidently walked back much of her earlier apology. In the opening paragraph of her appeal letter to the Curators, Click states:
In my participation and in my actions on both days I firmly believe I was exercising my protected rights as a United States citizen and a citizen of the State of Missouri. I steadfastly believe it would be a violation of my First Amendment rights and my rights to academic freedom to suggest that my interactions on either day provide grounds for the termination of my employment.
Another of Click’s arguments was equally provocative, in which she all but claimed a right to “impede the [Homecoming] parade’s progress.”
This approach strikes me as doomed from the outset. The Curators has already determined that Click had interfered with the student journalist, who was trying to take photographs of demonstrators on public property. She shouted for help removing him, including the infamous call for “some muscle.” It seems virtually impossible that the Curators would decide that was “protected” by the First Amendment.
Viewed strictly as a tactical problem, Click’s best argument would have been to minimize the severity of the conduct which, after all, accounted for only a minute or two of her twelve year career. She could have conceded the Curators’ finding of misconduct (without making a further admission), while arguing that a lesser penalty was more appropriate. That position would have held out a glimmer of hope for success – the original dismissal vote had been 4-2, meaning that she only had to convince one Curator to take it easy on her – while preserving her strongest procedural argument for the eventual lawsuit.
Although she no doubt had counsel, Click signed the letter of appeal herself. My guess is that her lawyer advised her against taking such an aggressive position, but that Click preferred to make a stand on personal principle.
The ultimate decision, of course, was Click's. But how would you handle a client in that situation?
[Cross-posted from The Faculty Lounge]