From Yale to U. Florida, free speech sinking

What started two weeks ago at the University of Florida as a physical battle for free speech has left the editor in chief of the Rocky Mountain Collegian at Colorado State University fighting for his job. While both situations have yet to see their final outcomes, the pattern of events has demonstrated just how tenuous much of our nation’s commitment to freedom of speech is.

On Sept. 18, during a forum with Sen. John Kerry at the University of Florida, a student was led away by the police for his persistent questions directed at Kerry. After he struggled with the officers, continually yelling for help (being unmistakably whiny), six officers braced the student, handcuffed him and, in the procces, one officer decided to Taser him. Kerry continued at the podium seemingly unaware.

A video of the event can be seen on YouTube. It is shocking and gruesome. The police response shows obvious abuse of power and a general disregard for the questioner’s personal freedom. Nevertheless, while the Tasering was inexcusable, the police’s initial response to remove the student can be understood — free speech does not imply a right to interfere with an organized debate.

In the wake of this incident, on Sept. 21, the editorial board of the Rocky Mountain Collegian condemned the event and attempted to raise a discussion on free speech by publishing an editorial that read “Taser This FUCK BUSH” in headline-sized font. Although the original event involved Kerry, a Democrat, the paper’s board apparently decided attacking Bush was the easiest way to prompt outrage and a discussion over freedom of speech.

Colorado State University was as excitable as editor in chief David McSwane and his editorial board imagined it would be. A influx of letters both for and against the paper’s action and its right to free speech in general poured in. Many called for McSwane’s resignation, while others sought his firing. Yes, have him fired — while CSU acknowledges it cannot regulate the speech of its students or the paper, the school has an oversight board for the paper whose regulations prohibit vulgarities in opinion writing. The board is holding a formal hearing today to determine his fate.

If the outrage were really over the paper’s use of the “F-bomb” and not its inclusion of “Bush,” that would be fine. It would be outrageously silly to have such an uproar over the use of that or any other common vulgarity (slurs absolutely excluded) in a college publication — the joke issue of the News on Monday used the word at least a half dozen times — and I can’t imagine anyone was seriously bothered or that CSU is entirely different. College is college, and the use of vulgarities is not limited to campus.

Nevertheless, news organizations, including this paper, have standards of style, and as a result report foolish-sounding things. “The editorial on page four reads Taser this, then the F-word, Bush,” said a CNN correspondent reporting on this story. If the standards keep more prudish readers and listeners happy, fine.

If the oversight board thought the paper had such great journalistic integrity that they should fire McSwane for allowing the use of a vulgarity and failing to follow the organization’s bylaws. The standards, however, hardly seem high. Despite the $3,000/semester salary for the editor in chief described on the CSU Web site, a look over the paper’s online edition shows that its writing and editing could certainly use some help.

Nevertheless, the outrage is not over the mere use of the word or the violation of standards. The reaction is almost entirely to the editorial’s political message. The political motivation is obvious in the CSU College Republicans’ petition for McSwane’s recognition. As reported by the Collegian, the group found it a “display of blatant disrespect for the Office of the President of the United States.”

While its method was undoubtedly crude, the Collegian succeeded in raising a debate over free speech and journalism’s role in it, not only on the campus of CSU but across the nation via mainstream media. Free speech does not come without responsibility, but even the most blatant abuses of it should not lead to an outcome where the editor of a paper is fired for raising the discussion.

Although we will have to wait and see, the general trends in the United States do not look favorable for McSwane. Since Sept. 11, we have seen freedoms — including the freedom of speech — limited in the name of fighting terrorism. In the last year, we have seen the freedom of speech of high school students fettered by the Supreme Court in Morse v. Frederick (the infamous “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case). Even at Yale, we have seen temporary censorship of student theatrical productions. The U.S.S. Freedom of Speech is slowly taking on water, and it seems like there may not be enough Americans — even counting those on college campuses — willing to bail us out.

Patrick Ward is a senior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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