By Brian Muñoz
My heart still pounds when I think about taking that first photograph, scanning Saluki Stadium during the national anthem and looking for a football player that knelt during the anthem at the first home football game.
I shifted my gaze and saw three kneeling cheerleaders. I took a deep breath and knew the frame I was about to take would receive criticism.
According to the National Press Photographer Association’s code of ethics, a photojournalist’s role is to visually report on significant events and varied viewpoints. Photojournalists have the responsibility to document society and life and preserve that history through imagery.
During the past few months, student media at the Daily Egyptian at Southern Illinois University have been subject to preemptive censorship through restricted access to administration and venues in an attempt to stop coverage of three African American sophomore student cheerleaders who chose to kneel during the national anthem since September.
Southern Illinois University’s African-American cheerleaders, Alaysia Brandy, Ariahn Hunt and Czarina Tinker, kneeled during the national anthem during a home football game, following NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s practice of kneeling to protest police brutality against people of color.
In the past, cheerleaders at Southern Illinois University have stood on the sideline during the national anthem. But after the cheerleaders continued to kneel, they were removed from the playing surface during the national anthem – even being held outside of the football stadium.
The Daily Egyptian reported SIU Athletics changed the protocol this fall semester. The new protocol calls for cheerleaders to be repositioned “to enhance fans’ experience” when entering athletic events, said SIU Director of Athletics Tommy Bell.
Daily Egyptian photographers continued photographing the cheerleaders throughout the semester. One of the photographs taken was of two of the three cheerleaders kneeling during the national anthem as they were hidden from the public eye in a backstage area among workout equipment at SIU Arena before a basketball game. The cheerleaders had never previously been in that area during the anthem before the protest occurred, according to a university athlete who chose to remain anonymous.
During the following women’s basketball game against SIU-Edwardsville on Nov. 27, I was stopped by assistant athletic director and athletic communications director Thomas Weber as I made my way to photograph the girls once again.
“Where are you going?” he asked as he stuck his hand out and physically stopped me from going farther into the area the cheerleaders were being held. “You can’t go there – that’s restricted access. Athletes only.”
After I asked Weber when that policy was put in place, he replied, “Since always.”
I then darted up the stairs into public seating where I could see the cheerleaders and framed my image, despite not being in the ideal location.
During the following game the tunnel doors where the three cheerleaders were kneeling were shut, something that had not happened the entire semester and only after the cheer coach had witnessed the photographing of the protesting cheerleaders. Bell, the director of athletics, has refused to comment to the Daily Egyptian and has directed communication to Weber.
Student journalists at the Daily Egyptian are not the only ones whose access to coverage has been restricted. A similar situation occurred earlier this year in Georgia at Kennesaw State University when five cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem, as reported by the Sentinel, the independent student newspaper at Kennesaw State University.
“Mike DeGeorge, assistant athletic director for communications and broadcasting, said the squad did not participate in the anthem before [the] game against Texas Southern because of a restructuring of the game-day schedule, not because of the prior week’s protest,” the Sentinel reported.
The KSU Sentinel reported that the athletics department told Undergraduate Student Government officials the department made the changes to the show before football games, saying the decision was made to “remedy” a two-minute gap before the visiting team came on the field.
After an internal review, the Kennesaw State University’s Board of Regents found the university did not adequately follow the state guidance that cheerleaders and any other students cannot be prohibited from kneeling during the national anthem as long as the actions are not disruptive, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
At both SIUC and at Kennesaw State University, the change in protocol regarding the cheerleaders came abruptly in the middle of the football season. The cheerleaders at both universities continued to kneel in the areas where they were taken instead on the playing surface.
“The cheerleaders have been kneeling inside the tunnel for the past several games and said they plan to continue to kneel,” the Sentinel reports.
Much like KSU, administrators at SIUC are attempting to stop fans and the public from seeing the cheerleaders take a stand for their beliefs and have now attempted to limit what the student media reports and shows.
“The fact that they are trying to silence us just shows that they really don’t care about what we are fighting for,” said Brandy, one of the SIU cheerleaders. “If you think about it, trying to silence people speaking out about the murders and injustice in this country is just facilitation. You are part of the problem. The fact is just that they don’t care and it’s so baffling, and it makes it more reason to keep going.”
A committee of representatives from the American Association of University Professors, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Student Press Law Center released a joint statement last year about the threats to independent student media.
“Student publications and the student press are valuable aids in establishing and maintaining an atmosphere of free and responsible discussion and of intellectual exploration on the campus,” the statement reads. “They are a means of bringing student concerns to the attention of the faculty and the institutional authorities and of formulating student opinion on various issues on the campus and in the world at large.”
The statement says restriction of student media is a greater problem: “Obstruction and harassment of campus media frequently signify deeper institutional mismanagement that administrators may seek to downplay or conceal.”
SIU’s new Chancellor Carlo Montemagno released a statement after the Oct. 14 Homecoming football game saying he supported the cheerleaders’ right to protest. “The two symbols that are the focus of these peaceful protests stand for one of our most important constitutional rights: freedom of speech,” he said. “We may not agree with how these students are choosing to make their statements, but we must morally and legally protect their right to make them.”
Despite his statement, the chancellor hasn’t taken action against officials for their actions against the cheerleaders, nor has he reversed their policy of hiding cheerleaders from public view when they knelt. University spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith said the chancellor was unaware the cheerleaders were hidden during the national anthem. The chancellor was present at several of the sporting events.
And still, the three Southern Illinois University cheerleaders have continued to be kept out of the public eye during the national anthem.
A photojournalist’s goal is to make viewers think and feel something. We seek the truth and report it. Our photographs document times of jubilation and times of despair. Sometimes this “something” is uncomfortable, but in documenting it we bring light to a truth that may be hard to accept.