Free speech in campus newspapers

Req: A, E, N, S

Blurred Headline“Taser This… F* Bush”

That four-word editorial in the Colorado State University student newspaper — which spelled out the expletive in large, bold letters — has renewed the national conversation about free speech on campus and in newspapers.

By now you should know what to expect. Conservatives have lined up to protest, ostensibly on grounds that it was “sick and childish.” In some cases they have even called for the editor’s resignation. Liberals are stepping forward to defend the editorial on “freedom of speech” grounds or even to praise it as “clever.”

When faced with questions about freedom of speech, it is often useful to divorce the issue (free speech in a campus publication) from the content (F* Bush). Too often discussion devolves into individuals wanting society to protect the speech they agree with and silence that with which they disagree. It seems obvious that an editorial that said “F* Hillary” would have drawn neither conservative critics nor liberal defenders with nearly the same level of enthusiasm.

In pondering the limits of free speech, consider the following headlines:

F* homework

F* Bush

F* Hillary

F* multiculturalism

F* religion

F* this university

F* <insert name of God/gods>

F* <insert slur for minority group>

After looking over those headlines, it becomes apparent that unless one wishes to limit the right of individuals to criticize their government and its officials, the only real issue with the CSU editorial is the use of the expletive.

It is an a priori good that a community recognize the right of its citizens to freedom of speech. But exercise of that right is not, by its very nature alone, a good. The gratuitous use of vulgarity certainly demeans the value of free speech, yet it does not in and of itself erase that value.

In the final analysis, the Colorado State University editorial is little more than a vulgar blip at that university, let alone a subject worthy of national attention. That it has achieved such prominence speaks more to the political divisiveness of the nation than it does to the freedom of speech, or lack thereof, on university campuses.

While one can appreciate the opportunity to discuss an issue as important as freedom of speech on campus, what it really comes down to in this instance is that the editor used a “bad word.” More than that is overreaction.


1 Response to “Free speech in campus newspapers”

  1. 1 Daniel Sauerwein September 25, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    First of all, thanks for the link to my article. I would say that while I found the CSU piece sick and childish, I would not have had a problem with the editorial board bashing the President on policy, or some other area that they felt legitimate in their minds. However, they chose to abuse their First Amendment rights and use them irresponsibly to attach one of the worst words in our language to the President. Let me state that I have no problem with responsible persons who are liberal writing to their heart’s content in any publication because if I don’t agree with it, I don’t have to read it, but if you misuse your platform and create what these students did, then you have gone too far. I feel that the real issue for most people with regard to this story is the utter lack of professionalism displayed by the piece and the negative reflection it gives on the paper, its staff, and CSU as a whole. I feel that the above examples of headlines would be deemed objectionable by almost everyone, regardless of politics, because of the language and not the disagreement with the issue. Your article mentions the possible reaction to an F-Hillary headline, but I believe that the reaction would be just as strong because while many on the right would disagree with her, they would not support such language used against her, choosing rather to challenge her in the arena of ideas. The editor-in-chief expressed the desire to highlight the importance of free speech on campus. There are much better ways to do this than what they did, like highlighting possible unconstitutional actions taken against campus publications by administration.

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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.



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