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Why college protestors are telling the media to stay away

Protestors at the University of Missouri hold a moment of silence during a press event.
Protestors at the University of Missouri hold a moment of silence during a press event.
Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

At Smith College, as at dozens of colleges around the country, students had a sit-in this week to show solidarity with protestors at the University of Missouri. But Smith's protest made news for another reason: what Smith told the media.

The students who organized the event said that only media friendly to their cause could participate, according to MassLive:

"We are asking that any journalists or press that cover our story participate and articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color," one of them told MassLive in the Student Center Wednesday. "By taking a neutral stance, journalists and media are being complacent in our fight."

Smith organizers said journalists were welcome to cover the event if they agreed to explicitly state they supported the movement in their articles.

The college supported the students' requests, making it the first time Smith has kept media out of a student event. After protestors at the University of Missouri blocked a photographer from taking photos in a public space last week, the request at Smith has been seen as part of a larger narrative of student protestors who don't seem concerned about free speech:

Journalists, who look askance at any attempts to limit the media's access, saw the students' request as a subject of concern. But even if you don't like it, it's a request that's going to become more frequent. There's no such thing as an on-campus story anymore, and students who are protesting at their colleges are having to navigate the reality that they're likely to become a national story.

Smith argued it's a private college and so media didn't need to come in

When University of Missouri faculty and staff tried to physically remove a student photographer who was taking pictures at a public university of an event that had already become national and international news, they clearly crossed the line.

But what happened at Smith isn't quite so clear-cut. It was an event at a private college, although one that, like all colleges, gets plenty of federal money. And while it was billed as a "sit-in," what happened wasn't really a traditional protest but a sharing of personal experiences:

The activists' goal was to establish a place where students — prioritizing students of color and black students — could share their thoughts, feelings, poems and songs related to a rash of racially charged episodes this fall at Mizzou, as well as personal experiences of racism.

MassLive estimated that 300 to 500 people attended, a big crowd given that Smith only has about 3,000 students. Keeping media out of an event that size is certainly unusual, particularly when it's held at a very public gathering place like the student center. Journalists don't, and shouldn't, simply shrug and walk away when they're told they're not allowed in to cover something. And the way that students asked for friendly media only is bound to induce eye rolling if you think "safe spaces" are an overblown concept.

Leaving aside the question of whether Smith was right to keep out the press, though, it's understandable why students wanted them to — and why these demands are going to become more common as campus protests spread.

There's no such thing as a local story anymore

Ten years ago, or even five, a group of students getting together to talk about racism wouldn't have been national news, unless that college had experienced some well-publicized racist incidents that year. Students could share their thoughts and feelings and poems, maybe get quoted in the student paper the next day, and that would be it. They wouldn't have needed to keep out the press because it wouldn't have occurred to the press to show up.

But now college campuses have become ground zero in all kinds of arguments — fights about race and inclusion, about mental health, about sexual assault, about questions of identity writ large. These are arguments that Americans are very interested in and that the media has discovered more over the past few years.

While in the past, campus protests would have needed to go on for days to get attention beyond the student press and the local paper, social media and the power of internet analytics now means that a single video or op-ed can become a national or international story, no matter its intended audience.

On-campus stories don't stay on-campus stories anymore. And this means there's almost no breathing room for students, faculty, and administrators to work through genuinely difficult questions, with the airing of impolitic opinions and overheated statements that's usually involved with that.

Any Smith student talking about racism at that forum would have needed to do so knowing that those remarks would be read by hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people, many of whom interpret and comment on them without a shred of good faith. This is just how things are now. Just as presidential campaigns had to adjust to trackers following their every move, campus social movements that use the internet at all — and that's every campus social movement, because it's 2015 — need to realize that everything they do can easily be blown up into a national story.

This isn't really anyone's fault. Most journalists don't want to invite an angry mob into a 21-year-old's life just because they gave an interview and said something controversial, but we can't guarantee this won't happen.

But as heavy a burden as the constant media spotlight is for a bona fide public figure, such as a presidential candidate, it's even worse for people who aren't really public figures but are trying to speak out on issues the public is interested in.

Reversing it, though, might not be possible. Smith's students tried to do it by keeping out journalists. But they learned that, in turn, just becomes a national story of its own.