COLORADO — Friday’s staff editorial at Colorado State University’s The Rocky Mountain Collegian was four words long, written in all capital letters and large type.
Headline: TASER THIS. Body: FUCK BUSH.
Within hours, the campus was in an uproar. By Monday the article had received more than 780 comments on the newspaper’s Web site.
The Collegian‘s editor in chief, junior David McSwane, told local paper The Coloradoan that the editorial was meant to raise awareness about the state of free speech on college campuses. Critics hurled a bevy of complaints, ranging from accusations that the editorial attacked U.S. troops to claims the editorial blamed President Bush for last week’s well-publicized tasing of University of Florida student Andrew Meyer.
By Friday night, both the president of the university and the editor in chief of the paper had issued statements about the piece.
Now, the university’s Board of Student Communications plans to meet Wednesday to decide if any action will be taken against the newspaper or its editors.
The Collegian is not supported by student fees and relies on advertising to fund its budget. But the board, which comprises three faculty members and six students, has the power to remove the editor in chief from his position, according to a statement issued by CSU President Larry Penley.
McSwane told The Coloradoan Sunday that he expects to receive calls for his firing from board members but plans to fight to keep his job.
“They can’t fire me for content, but they can fire me if there are overwhelming complaints from the community and students,” McSwane told The Coloradoan. “I think they might try to fire me.”
Mike Hiestand, an attorney and legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center, said McSwane’s legal position is strong.
“The First Amendment is very clear on this. Neither school officials nor the communications board — which includes representatives of the university — can lawfully remove a student editor for reasons related to content,” Hiestand said. “The speech here is protected and the board cannot legally remove Mr. McSwane simply because members of the CSU community complain about it. What I hope the board does is encourage those who disagree with the Collegian’s decision to add their voice to the debate, not silence the editor’s.”
McSwane did not respond to attempts made by the Student Press Law Center to contact him Monday.
In a statement issued by McSwane on Friday, he detailed how the newspaper’s seven-member editorial board met and voted to run the article. McSwane said the article was meant to highlight the importance of free speech on campus.
“I strongly urge the university community to try and understand that the intentions of the students on staff, including me, were not to cause harm, but rather to reinforce the importance of free speech at our great institution,” McSwane said.
The Coloradoan reported that the Collegian’s editorial board did not consult Holly Wolcott, the newspaper’s adviser, prior to running the piece. Wolcott declined a request by the Student Press Law Center for comment.
President Penley gave a statement Friday expressing his dissatisfaction with the newspaper’s decision to run the editorial.
“I am disappointed that the Collegian’s recent editorial choices do not reflect the expectations we have of our student journalists, nor the standards that are clearly articulated by student media policies,” Penley said.
But Penley added that the university is legally unable to interfere with the newspaper’s editorial policy.
“The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution precludes a state institution like Colorado State from excising prior restraint on expression with regard to public areas such as student newspapers… For that reason, 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,” Penley said in his statement.
In an editorial in Monday’s issue of the Collegian, columnist Ryan Nowell reported that the newspaper had lost advertisers and the staff would be receiving pay cuts due to the decreased revenue.
Nowell said that McSwane’s ouster would be a blow to exactly the type of speech the editorial attempted to highlight.
If McSwane loses his job, “he will expose two frauds: that the Collegian is a ‘learning’ paper there to train students through their successes and mistakes, and, that the Collegian is truly student run, when at any point a governing entity can silence those found inappropriate,” Nowell said. “It would also reaffirm the web of restrictive policymaking that the editorial was decrying.”