Published January 13, 2015
Hundreds of students crowded into an auditorium and hundreds more lined up in a hallway where the student editor of the Colorado State University newspaper explained to a board that could fire him why he used an obscenity in an editorial about President Bush.
"We expected a negative reaction but we didn't think it would be as bad as it is," J. David McSwane, the Rocky Mountain Collegian's editor-in-chief and a CSU junior, told the Board of Student Communications, which oversees student media at the university. The editorial Friday about the Tasering of a student at the University of Florida read: "Taser this. F—- Bush."
Some students crowding the hallways had T-shirts expressing support, with one student wearing duct tape over his mouth and another wearing a shirt that read: "F—- Censorship."
Assistant news editor Jessi Stafford asked the board to spare McSwane. "We were trying to do something powerful, different about what happened in the state of Florida," she explained.
During a public comment period, third-year graduate student Kristopher Hite defended McSwane, citing Vice President Dick Cheney's June 2004 use of the f-word on the floor of the U.S. Senate and future president and then-Texas Gov. George Bush's use of the expletive in a magazine interview.
"I'm here to tell you that the editor of a student newspaper should not be held to a higher standard than the president of the United States of America," Hite said to loud applause and cheers from the audience.
Student officials and faculty adviser Jeff Browne told the 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.
He added that one T-shirt manufacturer from Denver contacted the paper and bought $300 worth of advertising.
The newspaper maintains an office on school grounds but is self-funded through advertising.
Crystal Korrey, executive director of the CSU College Republicans, criticized the editorial.
"We didn't need this `reminder' of free speech," said Korrey, a political science major in her senior year.
"I want to attend a university that is nationally renowned, but this is not the way I wanted us to have this status," she said.
Nick Hemenway, a senior and an engineering major, summed up the argument for many who spoke in opposition to the editorial:
"Although the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, nowhere does it claim to provide freedom of consequence," he said, adding that he wasn't sure what punishment would be appropriate for McSwane.
School policies governing student media state that students cannot publish obscene materials but that "indecent or vulgar language is not obscene."
But James Landers, a journalism and technical communications faculty member on the board, said the same policy prohibits the use of obscene and vulgar language in editorials.
"You hear the F-word on campus all the time. We're a college newspaper and we're writing to college students... to get them thinking about issues that affect them," McSwane said, adding that he believed he was protected by school policies and the Constitution.
McSwane has refused to step down saying it would be an "insult to the staff who supported the editorial."
Landers said the board would meet behind closed doors Thursday morning to discuss whether to move forward.
Before the meeting, McSwane announced he hired David Lane, the attorney who represented former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, on the advice of professional staff.
"This fight is not about financial gain, but rather defending the Editorial Board's First Amendment rights," McSwane said in a written statement.
Lane did not attend Wednesday's meeting but McSwane said Lane planned to be at a later meeting where the board would decide whether to take action.
Lane also represents former University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Churchill, who provoked a firestorm with an essay that likened some World Trade Center victims to a Nazi who helped carry out the Holocaust.
CU said it could not fire Churchill for the essay, but a lengthy investigation by three faculty committees into some of his other writings led to his firing on research misconduct allegations. Lane filed a lawsuit on Churchill's behalf, contending school officials retaliated against him for exercising his right to free speech.