As NYU law professor Burt Neuborne has recently written in his book, Madison’s Music, the rights enumerated in the First Amendment trace “the arc of a democratic idea—from conception to codification.” These rights are bundled. The right to assemble is the right to assemble. The right of the press is the right of the press. They both serve the same public interest: the right to know. The cause may be just or unjust, the press may be approved or disapproved, but democracy thrives on openness and is chewed away by the proliferation of “safe spaces,” meaning, apparently, spaces safe from argument. God preserve us from spaces that banish argument!

As my onetime comrade in Students for a Democratic Society Carl Oglesby memorably put it, “Democracy is nothing if it is not dangerous.” Protesters who turn transparency opaque in a public place presumably do not understand the meaning of “public.” They have commandeered the place—expropriated it, in effect; converted it into their private property.

As the YouTube video circulated online, some on social media came to the activists’ defense. Professor, author and New York Times columnist Roxane Gay tweeted, to much social media approval: “This sense that we are entitled to access and information. We should interrogate that.”

There is plenty to “interrogate,” a term many academics have come to like because it sounds aggressive and makes simple questioning look wimpy. In the aftermath, Click has resigned her courtesy appointment with the Missouri School of Journalism—but not before she received hate mail and rape threats. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that “anonymous threats were directed towards students of color.” Such threats are undemocratic in themselves. Intimidation is vile.

Students should feel safe on their campuses, but not at the cost of a lively public life. Indeed, a free press has many times proved its value for safety’s sake. There’s a long history here. For social movements, this is not only a matter of democratic principle, it’s a matter of strategy. Media—even when distorting, invasive, stupid, or politically unsavory—are channels. Without them, much of the civil rights movement would have fallen into a deep hole; the antiwar, women’s, and queer movements likewise.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, reporting about Southern civil rights actions like the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56) and the Freedom Rides (1961) was eagerly sought by activists who were trying to puncture a curtain of silence. Atrocity photos galvanized people who didn’t want to face the brutality of the Deep South. (Here, for example, is Jet magazine’s photo of the mangled face of the 14-year-old Chicago boy Emmett Till, beaten to death in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.)

TV footage at its best exposed the awfulness of the Vietnam War. When the antiwar movement was open, many press reports gave them credibility even as others accentuated the most garish and outré of the rebels. In the ‘80s, when ACT-UP disrupted government presentations, the press paid attention, and the protesters gained the right to fast-track AIDS drugs. And in 2011, footage of a New York police officer pepper-spraying a peaceful protester rallied support for Occupy Wall Street. None of these images could have circulated if journalists hadn’t been free to go wherever they thought the news was.

When movements block communication—even communication to a public they suspect via channels they disapprove—they harden into echo chambers. That is when the mobs and the czars march in.

It’s the movements that understand this that, in the end, win.

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