FORT COLLINS, Col., October 4, 2007—Colorado State University is set to hold a formal hearing today on charges against the editor of its student newspaper, who late last month ran an editorial that simply said, “Taser this…FUCK BUSH.” CSU’s Board of Student Communications (BSC) is considering firing Rocky Mountain Collegian editor J. David McSwane for publishing the editorial in response to the well-known tasering incident at the University of Florida four days earlier. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling on CSU President Larry Edward Penley to put an immediate stop to the trial, which is an unconstitutional abridgement of students’ freedom of speech at CSU.
“As a public university, CSU has a constitutional obligation to uphold the First Amendment right to freedom of speech for its students—even speech that offends,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Further, CSU has no business dictating editorial content to student journalists. Not only is the school violating the Constitution by its actions, it is also flying in the face of decades of established Supreme Court case law that protects the use of the very kind of language that McSwane used in the Collegian.”
On September 21, 2007, McSwane ran the controversial editorial in large, headline-style letters on the Collegian’s opinion page. Response from the university was nearly immediate, and in a statement issued the same day as the editorial, CSU President Penley correctly noted that “Colorado State, as a state institution, is prohibited by law from censoring or regulating the content of its student media publication” (emphasis in original). Penley also stated, however, that BSC would investigate complaints about the incident, and that the BSC derives its authority directly from the university’s Board of Governors.
FIRE wrote to interim BSC president James Landers on October 3, urging him to call off the hearing, since it constitutes an unlawful investigation and trial of a student for exercising his rights to freedom of speech and of the press. FIRE stated that the BSC cannot punish McSwane “simply because the Collegian printed ‘profane and vulgar words’ in an editorial.” Furthermore, FIRE spelled out several decades of jurisprudence from the United States Supreme Court that provides unquestionable protection of such language, regardless of whether an expletive might offend members of the campus community. More specifically, FIRE pointed out that the First Amendment exists not only to protect non-controversial speech, but also to protect precisely the type of speech McSwane used—expression that some members of a community may find controversial or offensive.
FIRE’s letter also explained to CSU administrators that “[e]ditorial comments about political figures—even when they include ‘offensive’ language—comprise the core of our country’s honored tradition of political dialogue.” The landmark Supreme Court cases Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971) (which allowed a jacket that said “Fuck the Draft” in a county courthouse), Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988) (where the magazine suggested that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity in a drunken encounter with his mother in an outhouse), and Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667 (1973) (which allowed a student newspaper to run a headline that said “Motherfucker Acquitted” and an editorial cartoon showing policemen raping the Statue of Liberty and the Goddess of Justice) clearly protect shocking or deeply offensive material, farce, profanity, and exaggeration. FIRE clearly stated to CSU that “[n]o campus that claims to take seriously the free speech rights of students may retaliate against students or a student publication because others on campus felt offended by fully protected speech.”
“Nobody needs to like profanity, but Americans are allowed to speak their mind whether they use perfectly polite prose or the roughest slang,” Lukianoff said. “Critics of the paper have called the editorial unprofessional, distasteful, and immature, and FIRE also defends their right to vocally oppose the decision to run this editorial. What is not acceptable is to respond to ‘offensive’ speech with repression and censorship on an American campus. President Penley must act to stop these illiberal hearings now.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Edward Penley, President, Colorado State University: 970-491-6211; email@example.com
James Landers, Interim President, Colorado State University Board of Student Communications: 970-491-2876; firstname.lastname@example.org