Complaints filed in the wake of four-word editorial about President Bush that included an obscenity have merit and will result in a disciplinary hearing next week that could end in the firing of the student editor of the Colorado State University newspaper.
The Board of Student Communications, which oversees student media at the school, decided Thursday to proceed with a formal, closed door hearing Oct. 4 regarding the fate of J. David McSwane, editor in chief of The Rocky Mountain Collegian.
A public hearing Wednesday to hear complaints attracted hundreds of students, many who spoke in support of McSwane and his decision to publish an editorial Friday about the Tasering of a student at the University of Florida that read: “Taser this: (Expletive) Bush.”
James Landers, a journalism and technical communications faculty member on the board who signed the letter, said after the public meeting he’s received about 300 e-mails, with about 70 percent in opposition to McSwane’s editorial.
Landers ordered McSwane to attend the Oct. 4 hearing in a letter.
“As editor-in-chief of the Collegian, you are ultimately responsible for publication,” Landers wrote, adding the hearing will determine whether McSwane violated the paper’s and school’s code of ethics.
Calls to McSwane’s attorney, David Lane, and to McSwane, weren’t immediately returned.
In a legal analysis submitted to the board, Lane wrote that McSwane had “absolute protection” under the First Amendment.
“The government, through a CSU body, cannot censor you for your comments nor may they retaliate against you for your op-ed piece regardless of whether they believe you have used ‘offensive’ language.
Lane said it’s the same legal theory he’s using in a lawsuit filed on behalf of former ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill’s the day after the University of Colorado fired him July 24. Churchill provoked a firestorm with an essay that likened some World Trade Center victims to a Nazi who helped carry out the Holocaust. CU officials said Churchill could not be fired for the essay but it launched an investigation that uncovered research misconduct allegations that led to his dismissal.
Student officials and faculty adviser Jeff Browne told the CSU board that since the editorial ran, 18 advertisers have either called to pull their advertising or threatened to end their advertising in the newspaper, which could result in some $50,000 in potential lost revenue. Officials have said that staff would have to take an across-the-board 10 percent pay cut to make up for the losses, which cut into the $950,000 advertising budget. Browne said some staff members, including a photographer, have quit.
The newspaper maintains an office on school grounds but is self-funded through advertising.
In a written statement submitted to the board, McSwane said: “We’ve lost advertising dollars. While this is a blow to our organization, I would also encourage the Board to remember that advertising dollars, though crucial, should not control editorial content.”
School policies governing student media state that students cannot publish obscene materials but that “indecent or vulgar language is not obscene.” Landers noted that the same policy prohibits the use of obscene and vulgar language in editorials.