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Friday, September 28, 2007

Free Speech vs Bad Business

We hear quite a bit about Free Speech these days. Our Constitution says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Congress shall make no law. That is clear enough.

What about businesses, news papers or publications that depend on advertising revenues to support their existence.

What happens when a rogue editor or writer exercise their free speech and cost the business money?

Is firing an employee for costing your business thousands upon thousands of dollars not enough of a reason, in and of itself?

Is his claim of free speech even valid in this situation?

Enter Colorado State University and their publication, The Rocky Mountain Collegian.

The four-word editorial written and published by Colorado State University's student newspaper editor might have been bold and shocking for some. But profound, thoughtful and educational it was not.

J. David McSwane said he did it to shock an apathetic CSU campus and draw attention to the First Amendment. For his trouble and sophomoric action, he stands to be disciplined next week by the nine-member student-faculty committee that acts as publisher of the Rocky Mountain Collegian student newspaper.

Legally, McSwane's "Taser this (Expletive) Bush" editorial published last Friday with the f-word spelled out in headline-sized glory, was protected under the First Amendment.

The editorial was an apparent reference to the University of Florida student Tasered by police after authorities thought he disrupted a speech by U.S. Sen. John Kerry. How McSwane made the connection between the tasering and President Bush is unclear.

Perhaps we've reverted back to the times when you can't trust anyone over the age of 30, and they all represent "the man."

Many on and off the campus found the squall offensive. Advertisers reportedly pulled some $50,000 in ads, forcing the paper to publish in black and white. But unhappy advertisers go with the territory of a free press and we hope the committee does not base any punishment on lost revenue. Nor should a sanction be based on the outrage expressed by College Republicans who gathered some 500 signatures calling for McSwane's firing. It is not a partisan issue. It's a common-sense issue.

As an employer I can tell you that any employee that is in charge of making decisions and makes a bad decision, that costs my company $50,000, would be gone.

It isn't a matter of free speech at all, it is a matter of good and bad judgment and whether I want somebody in charge of making decisions that has shown this amount of bad judgment.

The constitution guarantees us certain rights but it does not guarantee us the right to not be held accountable for bad decisions.

This was his editorial.

Here is the fallout from his bad business decision.

Complaints filed in the wake of four-word editorial about President Bush that included an obscenity have merit and will result in a disciplinary hearing next week that could end in the firing of the student editor of the Colorado State University newspaper.

The Board of Student Communications, which oversees student media at the school, decided Thursday to proceed with a formal, closed door hearing Oct. 4 regarding the fate of J. David McSwane, editor in chief of The Rocky Mountain Collegian.

A public hearing Wednesday to hear complaints attracted hundreds of students, many who spoke in support of McSwane and his decision to publish an editorial Friday about the Tasering of a student at the University of Florida that read: "Taser this: (Expletive) Bush."

James Landers, a journalism and technical communications faculty member on the board who signed the letter, said after the public meeting he's received about 300 e-mails, with about 70 percent in opposition to McSwane's editorial.

Landers ordered McSwane to attend the Oct. 4 hearing in a letter.

"As editor-in-chief of the Collegian, you are ultimately responsible for publication," Landers wrote, adding the hearing will determine whether McSwane violated the paper's and school's code of ethics.

A 2003 graduate of Colorado State University, Maria St. Louis-Sanchez, who is the assistant city editor of The Tribune had this to say:

I never thought there would come a day when I would find myself writing this.

I have always been a huge supporter of the Rocky Mountain Collegian, Colorado State University's student newspaper.

Through the years I have defended the paper that once, instead of using the word "defect," accidentally printed "defecate" in a headline. A paper, which under my watch as editor-in-chief, somehow ran a front-page centerpiece story upside down and backward.

Through all of these mistakes, I have not given up my firm belief that the Collegian is the best student newspaper in Colorado and one of the best student publications in the United Sates. This is a paper printed five times a week, which is a tough task for any publication, but a minor miracle for low-paid staff members who are all balancing college classes. My year as editor was by far the toughest, and most rewarding, of my college career.

It is out of this deep respect for the paper that I am so incensed about the paper's recent editorial declaring in a huge font, "F*** Bush."

According to media reports, the editorial has lost about $30,000 in advertising revenue and has garnered the ire of talk show hosts around the nation. A petition at CSU, with almost 500 signatures, rightfully calls for the ouster of the paper's editor. A meeting by the Board of Student Communications may decide his fate tonight.

These student journalists will undoubtedly see themselves as martyrs for free speech. They will claim that their voices are being silenced.

But this particular issue isn't about speech. It's about taste.

Any newspaper could print obscenities or pictures of naked women on the front page, but they don't for good reasons. When a paper alienates the public by printing vulgarity, the public has the right to take its readership and advertising dollars elsewhere. Simply put, newspapers don't exist without readers or advertisers.

As the Collegian staff is now learning, free speech has its consequences -- not everyone will like what you write. And there's not much use in exercising your freedom of speech if you are destroying your megaphone in the process.

I am also troubled that these editors' actions could put the independence of the paper at risk. Generations of Collegian staff members worked hard to make the paper financially independent, thus giving students a voice autonomous of the CSU administration. It's an awesome responsibility to be a student while at the helm of such an institution. A responsibility, I had hoped, was being taken seriously.

If the paper is going to go down, let it be for a noble cause. The paper I know and love shouldn't be threatened because a couple of editors decided to have a hissy fit when they felt no one was listening to them.

A paper that already has to struggle to be taken seriously should be taking extra precautions to appear as professional as possible. An immature editorial such as this one simply validates all of the paper's detractors who consider it to be unprofessional and juvenile.

In an interview with CNN, Collegian editor David McSwane said he hoped the editorial would get people talking.

"We felt that this campus, for one reason or another, has been really apathetic. Too quiet," he said. "We felt that the best way to spark that dialogue was to exercise it ourselves."

Congratulations, your point is made.

You wanted free speech and you had your say. You wanted the public to speak out and they did. Maybe now it's McSwane's turn to listen to what his public is saying: Step down as editor.

He exercised his right to free speech, now his supervisors at the Rocky Mountain Collegian, need to exercise their right to fire an employee that cost them tens of thousands of dollars in revenue because he made a bad business decision.

The BSC is a nine-member board comprising both students and faculty, and governs student media at CSU. It hired McSwane, and has the power to fire him, according to the university.

The board decided McSwane may have violated two sections of the written ethics code for the Collegian and other campus media at CSU - a section that says "Be professional" and a subsection that states, "Profane and vulgar words are not acceptable for opinion writing."

At the closed-door Oct. 4 hearing, the board will determine whether the allegations that McSwane violated the ethics code were proven. If the board rules the allegations were proven, they have four punishments available: admonishment, reprimand, temporary suspension or termination.


Larimer County Republican Party chairman Ed Haynes, who identified himself as a private citizen, said some words are inappropriate. After repeatedly warning the crowd he was going to say something offensive, Haynes said, “Taser this… Obama is a n-----.”

His use of the racial slur in reference to presidential candidate Barack Obama drew a deafening chorus of boos from many people who had moments previously professed McSwane’s right to say whatever he wanted. (Source)

Written complaints may be sent directly to the Board of Student Communications, c/o Student Media, Lory Student Center, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523.

EDITORIAL STAFF | (970) 491-7513

Colorado State University
Office of the President
102 Administration Building
0100 Campus Delivery
Fort Collins, CO 80523-0100
(970) 491-6211

Since we are discussing Free Speech, other issues relating to this topic are also being discussed.

Captain's Quarters on Ahmadinejad and Lynne Stewart is a must read.

People have got to draw a line on what is free speech and people trying to use free speech as an excuse to simply exercise bad judgment and get away with it.

Open trackbacks over at Stop the ACLU.

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