Victories for Free Speech at Colorado State University

November 30, 2007

Free speech advocates should be following the case of J. David McSwane, editor-in-chief of The Rocky Mountain Collegian at Colorado State University (CSU), whose paper ran a constitutionally protected staff editorial on September 21. The editorial included, in large print, an expletive. After complaints and calls for McSwane to be fired and the paper to be punished, free speech prevailed and CSU’s Board of Student Communications merely admonished McSwane without choosing any real punishment. Yesterday, the Rocky Mountain News reported that CSU’s Board of Student Communications voted on Tuesday that McSwane (and the leaders of other campus media) would continue in their positions through May. As The Coloradoan reported on Wednesday, McSwane was retained “without condition.” The Board’s president, senior Jessica Gordon, pointed out that “[w]e referred to our bylaws and codes of ethics in making our decision.”

Jessica Gordon is the Board’s new president, actually, because the former interim president, James Landers, resigned last week. He resigned after, as The Coloradoan reported, “withdrawing a controversial proposal that would have made it easier for the BSC to discipline the Collegian’s editor over what the paper prints.”

The Coloradoan previously had reported on the outrageous challenge to the First Amendment represented by Landers’s proposal. He had argued that the Board should have the same rights that a private publisher would have to censor a publication it controls and punish its employees. According to the article, Landers “said the change is necessary to show that the board is in charge of the paper.” The problem, as the article clearly points out, is that “The First Amendment bars government from interfering with the free press. For instance, the government cannot tell a newspaper what it can and cannot print.” The Student Press Law Center had condemned the proposal. Likewise, according to The Coloradoan, CSU spokesman Brad Bohlander said that “any changes approved by the BSC will have to pass muster from university lawyers and the CSU Board of Governors…. ‘The university may not, under clearly established legal principles, attempt to control or dictate the content of what the Collegian has published or may publish in the future,’ Bohlander said in a statement.”

The article also includes this priceless exchange:

Said McSwane: “Punishment for speech is punishment for speech. How is that not censorship?”

Responded Landers: “It’s not.”

That response speaks for itself. And Landers is, um, Associate Professor of Journalism and Technical Communication at CSU. His dissertation was on newsmagazine coverage of the Vietnam War. He has spoken about censorship of journalists during the wars in Korea and Vietnam:

“In the space of five months, journalists in Korea went from reporting with no censorship, to reporting with voluntary censorship, to reporting with full field censorship,” Landers said. “Military commanders justified the progressive restrictions on the basis of operational security, while journalists believed the military sought mainly to protect its public image.”

Generals who had experienced only positive reporting during World War II were surprised, then angered, as journalists began reporting casualty rates for specific units and portraying American soldiers as being frightened, bewildered and demoralized, said Landers. “Some of the descriptions were unlike any published during World War II, when journalists avoided dealing with the emotional toll of battle and the psychological trauma that resulted.” […]

Journalists in Vietnam “would overwhelmingly comply with restrictions necessitated by operational security concerns but would adamantly resist any attempts to prevent reporting of information related to troop morale, combat conditions, or other subjects not considered potentially harmful to combatants,” Landers said. (Bruce Steele, University Times 32:21 (June 22, 2000), University of Pittsburgh)

It’s astonishing that Landers’s knowledge of government censorship was not more instructive in his dealings with The Rocky Mountain Collegian. One can hardly believe the media control he sought to impose at Colorado State University.

Schools:  Colorado State University