Tim Tai Accepts First Amendment Defender Award at DC Banquet

Radio Television Digital News Foundation Honors 6 for Their Commitment to Press Freedom

Washington (March 17, 2016) — Missouri School of Journalism senior Tim Tai was among the distinguished group of six journalists and First Amendment leaders honored by the Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) for their commitment to press freedom at the 26th Annual First Amendment Awards Dinner.

Tim Tai with J-School Faculty and Staff
Several Missouri School of Journalism faculty, staff and students were on hand to see Tim Tai win his First Amendment Defender Award. From left: Colin Kilpatrick, David Kurpius, Tai, Suzette Heiman, Earnest Perry, Fritz Cropp and Morgan Young.

Other recipients were Rich Boehne, E.W. Scripps Company; Tom Brokaw, NBC News; Robert Garcia, National Public Radio; Cami McCormick, CBS News; and Jason Rezaian, Washington Post.

“The Constitution enshrines freedom of the press in the First Amendment, but it takes exceptional people to make that promise live and breathe,” said RTDNF Chair Amy Tardif. “We’re proud to recognize those who have demonstrated a commitment to defending the rights of journalists.”

‪Tai received the newly-created First Amendment Defender Award for his public stand in support of press freedom. ‬He became one of the most visible journalists in America overnight while covering student protests at the University of Missouri in the fall of 2015. As seen in a viral video, Tai was confronted by university students, faculty and staff, threatening him with violence if he did not abandon his efforts to cover the protests. Instead, he stood his ground and patiently asserted his First Amendment right to stand in a public place and report on the events around him.

Dean David Kurpius, when introducing Tai to the more than 200 people who attended the event, noted that deep, contextual journalism helps inform and engage citizens and enables them to work through complex and difficult issues. The First Amendment is critical to this process.

Dean David Kurpius and Tim Tai
Dean David Kurpius and Tim Tai pose for a photograph after the banquet.

“It is clear that the historic values taught at the Missouri School of Journalism guided Tim,” Kurpius said. “There are many more difficult stories out there to tell. Tim is the type of journalist we all want covering those stories.”

Tai made the following comments when accepting the award:

Thank you, Dean Kurpius and thank you, Mike (Cavender). Thank you, Jeff (Marks), for such a beautiful tribute to Alison Parker and Adam Ward. And thank you to the Radio Television Digital News Foundation, all the members of the RTDNA and everyone here tonight. Even though my background is in newspapers and not broadcast journalism, I’m well aware of how important RTDNA is as a professional and advocacy organization for electronic journalists.

It’s a little overwhelming to be here tonight among such esteemed company, and this was a completely unexpected honor. In fact, I still don’t know how I feel about all the attention that’s come my way when I was just trying to do my job. I don’t think any of us go to a story expecting to get caught in the middle of it, but I’m glad that this has elevated important issues of journalists’ rights and responsibilities among our own industry as well as among the greater public.

This award is called the “First Amendment Defender” award, and I wish I could share it with all of our nation’s journalists because I believe we are all defenders of the First Amendment when we report and publish stories every day. I’m very fortunate because in that video, I wasn’t physically hurt, arrested, tear-gassed or otherwise confronted in any of the ways that hundreds of journalists are every year. In August 2014, when I was covering protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that was the nightly reality for all the journalists there – many wearing gas masks, body armor and Kevlar helmets just to exercise their First Amendment rights. I would call all of those brave people defenders of the First Amendment.

Tim Tai with RTDNF Award
Tim Tai holds his with RTDNF First Amendment Defender Award.

And people like the Post’s Jason Rezaian, whom I’m so glad is able to be here this evening, are also First Amendment defenders, believing so strongly in a free press that they risk everything to work in countries where a First Amendment does not exist. And my heart is heavy when I think of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in their calling to report the news.

We spend so much time lamenting the loss of press freedoms in this country – and justifiably so, as we continue to see access and transparency erode from our governmental institutions – but let’s not forget to be grateful for every story that we successfully report and publish. Whether it’s a hard-hitting investigation that exposes deep injustices or an uplifting feature story about a local community member, we’re defending our First Amendment rights. We’re saying, “We think this is important for the public to see, hear and read about, and we’re going to make sure they see, hear and read about it.” And we take it for granted to be able to do this every day, but that’s not the case in every country.

So, as we continue the fight to maintain our own press freedoms, we shouldn’t become discouraged at the often-uphill battle, but instead keep showing people why we need them. Let’s keep publishing great reporting and meaningful stories that go deep into our institutions and our communities. Let’s keep documenting important events for the historical record. And let’s keep in mind that we have the power to make a difference.

Updated: September 22, 2020

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