At a time when the approval ratings of President George W. Bush are at an all-time low due to a hugely unpopular and catastrophically mismanaged war in Iraq, among other things, one might think that college students expressing a general insult toward him isn’t exactly newsworthy or controversial. But there was, in fact, a great deal of controversy and condemnation toward Colorado State University’s newspaper, the Rocky Mountain Collegian, when it ran an editorial with such a sentiment on Sept. 21, with subsequent calls from students for the resignation of editor David McSwane and national newspapers reporting and commenting on it. The reason for such an outcry?
The four-word editorial read: ‘Taser this—Fuck Bush.’
Apparently, so delicate are the ears of Republicans that right-wing bloggers across the country immediately pounced on the juvenile editorial, branding McSwane and the Collegian’s editorial board ‘pointy-headed clowns,’ ‘America-hating liberals,’ ‘future mainstream media reporters, ‘narcissistic collegiate retards’ and ‘liberal jihadis.’ The editorial (or rather, the last two words of it) was held up as yet another example of the tired meme that today’s colleges are merely breeding grounds for anti-American thinking and liberal Hillary-Clinton-loving indoctrination.
All of that information can apparently be inferred from the two-word condemnation of the president, who has certainly done enough to deserve such condemnation, as all but the most rabid conservatives in the country are gradually coming to realize. Never mind that the Collegian (like the New University) is entirely funded by advertisements, not student fees, and is thus in no way representative of the administration’s views. Never mind that the administration thereafter announced a disciplinary hearing for McSwane, where he was admonished for being ‘unethical and unprofessional.’ Never mind that the comments section of the Collegian’s Web site was deluged by outraged responses by fellow students who retorted with even more vulgar terms, thus showing that CSU’s student body is not that monolithic. No, these facts got in the way of conservatives’ rush to judgment of all academia, and thus were largely ignored.
But what is truly offensive and obscene about this affair are the rabid and unyielding attacks launched on the Collegian for daring to express disapproval of the President by using the f-word.
As a result of the editorial, the paper has lost $30,000 in advertising revenue, resulting in most of the staff taking pay cuts. The College Republicans at CSU gathered 300 signatures for a petition calling for the firing of McSwane (a monumental feat, given the 30,000-plus student body). The school’s Board of Student Communications held a hearing about the editorial at which they held the power to fire McSwane, though they ultimately elected not to. Conservatives nationwide have launched the most vile, malicious and hateful attacks (far, far more hateful than the editorial in question) against the students and university in general.
All this because of the word ‘fuck.’ Now we know the true state of free speech in this country.
‘Obscene’ speech is in the eye of the beholder. It’s also guaranteed First Amendment protection, according to the U.S. Supreme Court in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri (1973), in which a student newspaper ran the headline ‘Motherfucker Acquitted’ (but uncensored). Thus, it is doubtful that the board could have legally fired McSwane for the editorial, as case law is absolutely clear that a school administration has no right to retaliate against a newspaper for controversial content.
While the editorial was on its surface juvenile and needlessly confrontational (though neither of those traits are enough to deny a publication its First Amendment rights), the outrage it sparked reveals the deeply rooted intolerance of dissent among conservatives today. They will claim to support free speech, while at the same time call for the firing of an editor who writes something they find offensive or organizing letters to businesses encouraging them to pull their advertisements, the end result of which may be the dissolution of the paper. These are attempts at censorship, pure and simple; they just don’t have the simplicity of a police state or government regulation to make them easily recognizable. But when a group attempts to weed out ‘offensive’ speech and prevent its future publication through intimidation, that is the first step toward regulation of speech by mob rule.
To be precise, the anti-Bush sentiment is not necessarily the main cause of their anger. According to the editorial board, ‘we’ve written several opinion pieces bashing the president, and all of those fell on deaf, apathetic ears