On June 12, KBIA health reporter Sebastian Martinez Valdivia tweeted six times about the debate over removing the Thomas Jefferson statue in the University of Missouri’s Francis Quadrangle.
The first tweet was an image of the statement issued that day announcing UM System President and MU interim Chancellor Mun Choi’s decision, made in consultation with the Board of Curators, that the bronze image would remain.
The others expressed his personal opinions about the decision. Martinez, whose parents also work for the university, grew up in Columbia.
"One good thing about growing up within an institution is feeling fully entitled to call it on its bulls--t, even if it employs me," Martinez wrote in one tweet.
"Although, to be clear, everyone is entitled to do this," he wrote in a follow-up.
One good thing about growing up within an institution is feeling fully entitled to call it on its bullshit, even if it employs me.— Sebastián Martínez Valdivia (@sebastiansings) June 12, 2020
That tweet, and others by Martinez and Kellie Stanfield, a news producer at KOMU, were highlighted as inappropriate by Choi in an Thursday evening interview with the Tribune. Choi used the tweets as examples of the kind of dissent from university staff that he said undermines the mission of the university.
Choi called senior leaders in the chancellor’s office, the president’s office, the provost’s office and deans for Zoom meetings July 10 and last Monday to tell them he expects people who disagree with decisions to remain publicly silent.
In the interview, Choi referred to Martinez, who is an adjunct instructor in addition to his reporting duties, and Stanfield, who carries the title of assistant professor, as university staff.
"This is not about anything he wrote as an article," Choi said. "This is on his page where he identifies as a reporter at KBIA but he says he wants to call out the bulls--t of the university. You tell me, is that professional?"
In addition to expressing his opinion about the decision, the tweets of June 12 drew additional attention to Martinez after the words "Say her name Sally Heming" was spray-painted on the sidewalk by the statue on June 21.
On the evening of June 22, MU police officers arrived at the residence Martinez shares with Stanfield. They questioned him about the tweets and the acts of vandalism targeting the statue, showed him his past tweets and said he resembled one of the people caught on surveillance cameras.
Stanfield, who was present, used her account on Twitter to give commentary. She told the world that "I have never laughed so hard in my life" and followed it up by giving some of his conversation with the officers.
"This whole thing was so shocking and dumb I forgot the best part!" Stanfield tweeted. "The detective asked Sebastián if he defaced the statue and Sebastián said: ’Unfortunately, I did not.’"
This whole thing was so shocking and dumb I forgot the best part! The detective asked Sebastián if he defaced the statue and Sebastián said: "Unfortunately, I did not."— Kellie Stanfield (@KellieStanfield) June 23, 2020
Those tweets also drew Choi’s attention and displeasure, he said.
Damage to university property must be investigated and appropriately punished, Choi said in the Zoom meeting with university leaders, an accompanying slideshow and in the Thursday interview.
"There were staff and faculty actively making light of that situation," Choi said Thursday. "There were two journalism faculty members, one a KBIA reporter, the other a KOMU producer, news producer, and when we look at that situation — he was visited by the police because they had some tweets he sent earlier and the police thought he matched the description of the video they had."
Choi then referred to the tweets from June 12.
"They asked him if he was the person who spray-painted the vandalism, he said, 'no, unfortunately not,’" Choi said. "Then the KOMU reporter makes light of it, saying it was the funniest thing she had ever seen."
Martinez declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email, he said he wanted to add context and clarify what he told police that was partially quoted by Stanfield.
"What I said to the MUPD detective was, ’Unfortunately, it was not me. I mean for you, in your investigation,’" Martinez wrote. "I did not say or imply in any way that I wished I had committed the crime."
Stanfield also declined to be interviewed.
"I'm sorry I can't tell you anything right now," she wrote in an email. "I do not understand why the president of the university is so mad at me. I am truly just mystified, confused and worried for my job."
Dean David Kurpius of the Journalism School, which operates both KBIA and the news operation at KOMU, was asked about Choi’s criticism in an email.
"The School of Journalism has world-class faculty and staff who work daily in our newsrooms to train students and serve the news and information needs of mid-Missouri," Kurpius wrote. "They work hard to uphold the First Amendment rights of the press and citizens."
He did not respond to a request for additional clarification.
The university must show it can punish people who damage property, Choi said.
There have been two citations issued so far, one for the spray-painted words near the statue and one for tampering with the statue.
"The last thing our faculty and staff should do is make light of a situation that in many cases will embolden, make it acceptable, and it is not," he said.