In response to a September editorial in the Collegian that read “Taser This. F*** Bush,” the Board of Student Communications, the paper’s publisher, is considering adopting revisions to their bylaws that allow them to punish the editor in chief for printing profanity.
In its meeting last Tuesday, the Board voted to entertain a change in a clause in their policy that states: “University officials . cannot censor or punish the occasional use of indecent, vulgar or so called ‘four-letter’ words in student publications.”
The proposed revision, which is set to be voted on in December, would strike “or punish” from the clause — a move both the Collegian editor in chief and Student Media general manager said is a step toward censorship.
James Landers, interim president of the BSC and the faculty member who proposed the revision, said the BSC is acting publisher of the Collegian and should have the authority to hold the editor in chief to standards established in the policy manual.
“As publisher, BSC has ultimate authority,” Landers said in an e-mail to the Collegian. “This reflects reality. In the real world, which the Collegian is supposed to prepare you for, an editor works for a publisher.”
Landers said the publisher of a newspaper traditionally has the right to impose rules on and review the behavior of the editor of the respective paper.
But a lawyer with the Student Press Law Center, an organization of lawyers devoted to protecting the rights of student journalists, said the revision could be considered an under-the-rug form of censorship.
Mike Hiestand, a lawyer with SPLC, said a private publisher can punish an editor for content-related issues, but a government agency, such as the BSC, is restricted under the First Amendment.
“It’s pretty chilling,” Hiestand said. “That’s the sort of thing I would fight tooth and nail.”
Jeff Browne, Student Media director and BSC general manager (a non-voting member of the Board), said the change could mean trouble for the Collegian.
“My initial response was that I thought it would sound like de facto censorship because a publisher or publishing board that consists of university employees, if it had the ability to punish an editor, it could be construed as a back doorway toward censorship,” Browne said. “But Jim (Landers) has a different view of that.”
Collegian Editor in Chief J. David McSwane said if the revision is voted into policy, it will set a bad precedent for colleges across the country.
“To change the language in such a way so soon after what we went through with the F-Bush editorial is irresponsible and ultimately a disservice to students,” McSwane, a non-voting Board member, said.
Landers said the distinction between use of profanity in opinion writing and news coverage was overlooked in defense of the editorial. The BSC Manual states, “Profane and vulgar words are unacceptable for opinion writing.”
At a public forum where students and community members voiced their opinions about the editorial to the BSC after it was printed, one student defended McSwane by citing a magazine article in which Bush was quoted using profanity.
“In 1999. The then Governor, George W. Bush, had an interview with Tucker Carlson in this magazine called Talk Magazine, which he was being interviewed about corporal punishment. In that magazine, George W. Bush was quoted in saying the F-word three times in the first paragraph of that interview,” said Kristopher Hite, a natural sciences graduate student at CSU.
“I agree that an editor of a college newspaper should not be held to any higher standard than the President of the United States,” Hite said.
But Landers said that the F*** Bush situation is different.
“It became obvious during the public forum after the F-word editorial that references of news coverage were cited as support of the use of profanity and vulgarity when ‘essential to the readers’ understanding of the situation,’ while the distinct proscription of the same for opinion writing received less attention,” Landers said in an e-mail message.
Hiestand said if the BSC votes for the change, it could jeopardize the collegiate free press nationwide.
“If other school officials are watching and see that CSU got away with it, who knows?” he said. “It just looks bad . CSU should know better.”
McSwane attended last Tuesday’s BSC meeting and said he was dismissed early before the revision proposal — which was not on the meeting agenda — was handed out to the voting members.
“I’d call it more than a little dirty and shady,” he said.
Assistant News Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.