It has taken merely five syllables to strike a deep nerve at Colorado State University and in communities across the nation: "TASER THIS … FUCK BUSH."
The statement, published Friday as the Rocky Mountain Collegian’s staff editorial, has resulted in a substantial loss of advertising revenue for the student-run newspaper, and has embroiled Editor in Chief J. David McSwane in a dispute more far-reaching than the Collegian’s editorial board could have possibly foreseen.
The piece – which McSwane said was intended to highlight the importance of free speech – is inflammatory, juvenile and offensive, but calls for McSwane to be fired are far more alarming than any one-sentence missive against a controversial public official could ever be.
Reader backlash is understandable, but motioning for a replacement is nothing short of irrational. Demanding his termination for the editorial board’s exercising of the First Amendment is antithetical to the very notion of free speech itself.
A hearing will be held tonight by the newspaper’s communication board to determine what action, if any, should be taken regarding McSwane’s position. The CSU-affiliated newspaper, which operates solely on advertising revenue, is an autonomous student-media organization, thereby making attempts to unseat its editor futile.
"Neither school officials nor the communications board – which includes representatives of the university – can lawfully remove a student editor for reasons related to content," legal consultant Mike Hiestand told the Student Press Law Center. "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."
The most ardent detractors, seemingly mortified by a four-letter word, would do themselves a favor by never again picking up the Collegian. It’s that simple. They are also free to protest on campus, to publish their opinions online or in their own publications and to send as many letters as they’d please into McSwane’s undoubtedly clogged inbox, just as McSwane and the Collegian’s editorial board are equally free to publish their opinions, no matter how unpopular or caustic those opinions might be. This is an integral part of what makes our country so great.
Those who assert that the editorial somehow maligns CSU are equally unrealistic; readers with basic critical thinking faculties will not form their opinion of an entire university based upon a single editorial published in its student newspaper.
The Collegian may have made a mistake, but mistakes are an inevitable aspect of student life. Learning and growth are not possible without the occasional gaffe. Removing McSwane, for whatever reason, would send the message that mistakes are not tolerated, and that free speech isn’t as free as one might suspect. This is a slippery slope that is diametrically opposed to the ongoing free exchange of ideas that contributes so vitally to the fiber of our nation.
As such, McSwane is standing his ground, and rightfully so. It’s what is expected of any embattled professional who believes they have taken the right course of action.
Ultimately, the editorial produced the exact effect for which it was intended. In the aftermath of its publication, talk of the nature of free speech has radiated out far beyond the snow-capped peaks of Fort Collins, Colo., and into households nationwide.
In these situations it is best to remember the wisdom of Frederick Douglass, who once said that, "to suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money."