In the wake of the Andrew Meyers tasering incident, the editor of The Rocky Mountain Collegian-- Colorado State University's student newspaper-- has found himself in trouble over a four-word editorial. Those four words? "Taser This: FUCK BUSH."
Okay, so a lot of people have problems with the word "fuck." And they have big problems with the idea of some liberal college punk using that word in association with the commander-in-chief. I don't really care about that-- that's their problem; they should get over it.
Other people will point out-- correctly-- that this particular editorial is actually completely vapid, intellectually bankrupt, completely lacking a point or clearly articulated point-of-view. They make reference to the Andrew Meyers incident-- which involved police officers using weapons against a man at a Democrat's speaking engagement-- in reference to our president, the Republican who beat the aforementioned Democrat in the last election. The tasering has nothing to do with George Bush. I suppose an argument could be made by some that the incident at the Kerry speech was emblematic of Bush's America, where our rights have been severely diminished to the point that we're no longer free to voice opposition to any elected official-- but this editorial doesn't make that point. So, okay-- I'll agree that the editorial was stupid.
The editor of the paper-- David McShane (who achieved national fame a few years ago when he exposed corruption in a military recruiting office)-- is facing possible termination over this incident. Let that sink in for a moment: The editor of a supposedly "editorially independent" student newsaper could be punished for publishing an editorial that some people found stupid and/ or offensive.
Forgive me for being flippant, but isn't this kind of the point of having a student newspaper? Traditionally, college students are idealistic and excitable, passionate about the issues, and-- let's face it-- prone to the occasional hyperbole and profanity. I imagine plenty of former student journalists look back on things that they've written and groan, "I can't believe I wrote 'Gerald Ford is like Hitler without the fucking mustache'," but that's part of the experience of going to college, right? I'm sometimes embarassed that I took part in a demonstration against the then-president of my alma mater over her decision to eliminate the wrestling program that nobody except for a few students and coaches even knew we had. But, for many of us, that's college-- a time for unbridled, often non-reflective passion over every perceived injustice.
Even when I was at the University of Missouri-- which has what's arguably the best journalism program in the country-- I would occasionally look at the student newspapers and think, "That's dumb." But that doesn't mean that these students should lose their positions (or their First Amendment rights). What it means is that I'm obligated to write a letter to the editor, or talk to other students or faculty members about the article or editorial, or add my voice to the discussion in some other way.
Of course, there are some limits even to First Amendment rights-- the editor of a college newspaper doesn't have the right to print libel; if the editorial had said, "Bush Rapes Kittens," then he'd have to be fired. Similarly, if there is a massive student and advertising boycott of the paper, some disciplinary action may need to be taken to remedy the situation-- the student newspaper's primary role is to inform the student body, afterall. If an editor's decisions make that mission impossible to fulfill, then he may need to be replaced.
But I don't see how either of these issues matter in this case. This editorial wasn't libelous-- it was just aggressive. And while they might lose some advertisers or readers, I imagine they might also gain some more (some people will surely be impressed with the editor's "bravery" or "gumption" in printing this editorial). So this editorial-- while certainly stupid-- harmed no one. Any attempt to punish the editor, on the other hand, could cause serious harm to the First Amendment rights of student journalists everywhere.