I remember watching coverage of the protests at the University of Missouri in November and seeing a YouTube video of an assistant professor grabbing at a journalist’s camera and calling for backup to block him from recording.
"Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!" Melissa Click said in the video, which went viral.
After watching the tense exchange, I thought to myself, “I bet she’s going to get some hate mail.” Turns out, I was partially right.
Steve Kolowich, a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, filed a public records request for Click’s emails that day and the next and found that she received 12 kinds of messages. They ranged from support — both genuine and fake — to threats. Some wanted to educate her on the First Amendment. Others wanted her fired. This week, she was charged with third-degree assault.
Kolowich also requested emails from another staff member seen in the video — Janna Basler, an assistant director of Greek life — but her emails have not yet been released.
I asked Kolowich to tell me more about his public records request and what kind of reaction he has received to the story.
How did you get the idea to request Melissa Click’s emails?
When news breaks at a college or university, we do what we can to try to get as close to the action as we can. That mostly means the usual stuff — calling sources, going to campus and talking to people — but when it goes down at a public institution we also have the opportunity to request records that might shed light on what's going on. Emails can be especially interesting because they capture real-time reactions and correspondence without relying on the memories, interpretations, and discretion of the people you would interview after the fact.
Was it difficult to get the emails? What was the process like?
Making the request was easy, but we had to wait for awhile to get the documents. There were a lot of emails, even within a two-day window, and the university's lawyers had to vet all of them to make sure to black out any information that they're not allowed to give us, such as private student information. We actually filed several records requests back three months ago. The university gave us Ms. Click's emails on Monday, and we're still waiting on the others.
Were you surprised by what you found?
Yes and no. We guessed there would be media requests, some hate mail, and at least a few admirers. But imagining these documents in the abstract is much different from taking an inventory and getting a real sense of their texture and scope. I was surprised both by the variety of messages, and then how similar many of them were to one another. The idea to do a taxonomy of the "12 kinds of email" grew from that observation.
What has the reaction been to your story?
A lot of readers thought it was fascinating. Other people felt it was inappropriate to publish emails from a "personal" account, even if they are public records. Some people interpreted it as an attempt to elicit sympathy that they felt Ms. Click did not deserve. Others accused us of validating trolls and fueling a politically motivated campaign to get her fired. What's abundantly clear was that her critics and defenders still feel very strongly about what they saw in that video and what they think Ms. Click deserves as a result.
Do you often file public records requests on your beat?
Not too often, though I'd like to do more. Last summer I wanted to find out if Sweet Briar College, which was going through some serious financial issues, had tried to get absorbed by the University of Virginia. Sweet Briar is private, but UVa. is public, so I requested emails among leaders at UVa. and found that, yes, Sweet Briar had courted them for a possible merger.
A couple of my colleagues here at The Chronicle recently did a project to find out how admissions officials handle requests for the special treatment of certain well-connected applicants; they did that by obtaining thousands of emails from admissions officials at 13 public universities.
You can read Kolowich’s full story, “Melissa Click’s Inbox,” on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website.