Free Speech on Trial Today in Colorado!

By October 4, 2007

As I noted earlier this week, a student editor at Colorado State University (CSU) is in hot water for publishing an editorial that read, in its entirety, “Taser This… FUCK BUSH.” At 4:30 Mountain Time today, Rocky Mountain Collegian editor J. David McSwane will face CSU’s Board of Student Communications (BSC) in a closed-door hearing which will decide if he will keep his job. If the phrase “closed-door hearing” makes you nervous, it should.

While one can understand how a paper could take some heat for publishing an editorial that wouldn’t, say, meet the professionalism standards of The Washington Post or The Economist, there can be no doubt that this editorial is protected speech. In fact, as I also pointed out earlier, there is a Supreme Court case almost directly on point, saying that state schools like CSU cannot punish the collegiate press for using rude words.

Nobody needs to like profanity—and, indeed, many Americans truly hate “four-letter words”—but citizens have the right to speak their mind whether they use Victorian prose, the roughest slang, or even iambic pentameter. Critics of the paper have called the editorial unprofessional, distasteful, and immature, and the First Amendment equally protects their right to criticize the paper. Furthermore, the paper has lost substantial advertising revenue following its decision to run the editorial—a lesson, perhaps, in the realities of running a newspaper. What is not acceptable is to respond to “offensive” speech with repression and censorship. No matter what the Board of Student Communications (which derives its power from the university’s Board of Governors) finds, investigating clearly protected speech is inappropriate.  If members of the student press know that they could be hauled up on charges every time they write something controversial—regardless of the ultimate outcome of the adjudication process—a palpable chill will settle on the student press. There should be no investigation. There is nothing here to investigate other than outraged students and protected speech. There is no need for a hearing; the law is clear enough. CSU President Larry Penley should live up to his previous promises to respect the paper’s free speech rights and autonomy and put an end to this hearing today. I hope you all will join with FIRE and help us convince CSU to reverse course. Free speech isn’t always pretty, but censorship is always ugly and unworthy of a free society.