Oct 012007
Authors: Dr. Donna Rouner

One critical job of a college newspaper is to engage its public in a debate of relevant current issues.

Thus, the Collegian editorial board regularly publishes staff opinions on the university, Colorado, our nation and the world.

One of my jobs, as a college journalism professor, is to use the furor over the Collegian’s editorial F-bomb as an opportunity to teach. However, it is also my job to endorse student press freedom, as without that, student journalists might suffer the chill of self-censorship characteristic of some college campuses and many high schools in the United States today.

Without a free press the Colorado State University community would not benefit from the marketplace of ideas fostered by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

This marketplace of ideas is not simply an opportunity for the Collegian staff to provide us with its opinions and perspectives but for the Collegian to offer dissenting views, as well.

As First Amendment advocate Nat Hentoff noted in a recent column, a national sample of over 100,000 high-school students found 73 percent either had no opinion of the First Amendment, or took it for granted, and 36 percent believed newspapers must first secure government approval before publishing.

To stymie speech and the press on a college campus is to stymie thinking.

We do not need to compare the Collegian to media outside of a college environment, insisting that the F-word would not be allowed in such a context, as some critics have suggested.

The corporate hegemonic media in the United States that are protected by the First Amendment regularly engage in the following indecencies, among others, that are far beyond the use of a simple expletive: the systematic marginalization of various social groups in the news, entertainment and advertising media; misogyny and bigotry in the music industry; saturation of gratuitous violence in film, television, video games and the Internet; blatant nudity and sex, including the sexualization of young children, in advertising across all media.

The same First Amendment that protects the above sanctioned a Ku Klux Klan march in Skokie, Illinois, as well as a talk by Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently at Columbia University.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

The Collegian’s opinion – no matter how much audience members perceived it to be offensive, unwelcome, profane, immature or irresponsible – is protected first and foremost by the First Amendment.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that the best test of the First Amendment is to extend it to people whom you hate. It is okay for people to hate the Collegian’s editorial and its publishing it.

The First Amendment to the Constitution is the guiding principal for the bylaws of the Board of Student Communications, as one can easily determine by reading that document.

If the board determines that the editor of the Collegian may be fired because of a technicality in the bylaws (e.g., in this instance it’s okay to use a profanity but in this other instance it is not okay to use a profanity), this would be a grave injustice.

A clear contradiction exists between the spirit of the First Amendment and the letter of the board’s bylaws. This suggests a no-win situation.

One possible solution to all this uproar is for the board to rework its bylaws.

Further, it seems prudent for the board to examine and evaluate the publication of the editorial that has caused a furor on the basis of its own merit and not as a response to the complaints of individuals at a public forum.

Having the public forum and allowing public comment is honorable and a testament to the Collegian editorial’s promoting public discussion. However, any decision about the fate of the editor of the newspaper ought to come from a thorough evaluation of the publishing act in and of itself and not result from who is criticizing it or the specific nature of their complaints.

When I was a high-school journalism adviser in the 1970s my newspaper editors, who won national awards, used the same controversial word in news and opinion columns.

Times have changed in our culture and, although this word still flies on university campuses, not to mention junior highs and church basements, it appears that if a university newspaper editor prints the word in what might be perceived as a desperate act of frustration (loss of civil liberties, an unjust war, the tasering of a college student at a political talk), he faces serious repercussions.

The vulgarity here is what’s being done to what the founding fathers had in mind with the First Amendment.

Donna Rouner is a professor for the technical journalism department. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com

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