Board at Colo. State considers changes to publications policy

COLORADO — Following a well-publicized and controversialnewspaper editorial criticizing President Bush, a publications board at a public university in Coloradois considering revising its bylaws to allow newspaper staffers to be punishedfor publishing what the board deems indecent material.Currently, thebylaws governing the Board of Student Communications at Colorado StateUniversity at Fort Collins say officials cannot “censor or punish theoccasional use of indecent, vulgar or so called ‘four-letter’ wordsin student publications.”

The proposal aims to remove the phrase “or punish” from theline in the “Protected Speech” section of its bylaws.

The idea does not sit well with many involved in student publications atCSU.

“This would be de facto censorship,” said Jeff Browne,director of student media.

In an editorial Tuesday, The Rocky Mountain Collegian, thestudent-run newspaper on campus,criticized the proposed change, sayingit would send a message to future editors that there are limits to what they cansay.

“Students would have the right to print without oversight, but thenbe fired for it if the Board so chooses,” the editorial said.

Browne said Jim Landers, interim president of the board, introduced thechange during an Oct. 30 meeting. The BSC, which describes itself as thenewspaper’s publisher, will vote on the proposal in December.

In an article Tuesday, The Collegian reported that editor in chiefDavid McSwane — who is a non-voting member of the Board — left earlyfrom Tuesday’s meeting and was not made aware of the proposal.

Landers later told The Collegian that “as publisher, BSC hasultimate authority. This reflects reality. In the real world, which theCollegian is supposed to prepare you for, an editor works for apublisher.”

Landers did not return calls from the Student Press Law Center seekingcomment Tuesday and Wednesday.

Because the board comprises three faculty members and seven student membersappointed by the university’s Board of Governors, the BSC remainsaffiliated with Colorado State, a public university.

Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the SPLC, said the bylaws make littledifference. Punishing students for occasionally running material some may seeas indecent would violate their First Amendment rights, he said. Because CSU isa public university, the board cannot punish student publications based oncontent.

“There’s no way that the school legally, under the current law,could be allowed to do the sort of things that they are proposing,”Hiestand said. “Profanity is protected expression.”

Browne said he understands the frustration the board has with being apublisher, yet not having the powers one would have at a commercial paper. Butbecause some board members are employees at a public university, “you arean agent of the government, and shouldn’t be censoring studentpublications.”

If the change is passed by the board at its December meeting, Browne saidthe proposal probably will be received by the university’s legal counsel,as well as the school’s board of governors.

Browne said he would rather not speculate whether either group would takeany action on the change, only saying that “if the board passes this therewill be institutional checks.”

Amy Parsons, associate legal counsel at CSU, said because theuniversity’s legal department had not yet received any official proposalform the board, she could not comment.

Parsons did reiterate that no decision by the BSC would become universitypolicy until it was submitted to CSU’s legal department and the universitysystem’s governing body approved the change.

The Collegian drew national media attention when it printed afour-word editorial –“Taser this … Fuck Bush” — in itsSept. 21 edition. After several student organizations called for McSwane’sremoval, the BSC held two meetings — one public and one private — todetermine McSwane’s fate.

The board decided not to remove McSwane, but admonished him for choosing torun the editorial. The board said although it felt McSwane’s decision was”unethical” and “unprofessional,” the editorial was anexpression of opinion, and thus protected by the First Amendment.

Browne said if the proposed change were to go become a reality, the effecton student media at CSU would be minimal because it refers only to theoccasional use of profanity. It would, however, set a poor precedent for futurefree-speech battles at the university, Browne said.

“The overall impact from an everyday sort of standpoint isn’tthat great, probably,” Browne said. But from a philosophical standpoint,from setting a precedent, the potential impact is great.”

For More Information:

  • Colo. State editor will keep his job News Flash, 10/5/2007
  • Editorial at Colo. State curses Bush, puts editor’s job in jeopardy News Flash, 9/24/2007