Originally appeared in Fort Collins Now
28 September 2007
What do CSU Collegian Editor-in-Chief J. David McSwane and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have in common? Without even knowing each other, they teamed up to make the end of September “Free Speech Appreciation Week” and taught us all valuable lessons about our First Amendment.
McSwane is an up-and-coming young journalist who had already won national notoriety as an Arvada high school senior with his undercover expose of Army recruiters willing to lie and cheat to meet their quotas. At least, he was up and coming until his recent decision to print a terse editorial that read, in its entirety, “Taser this? F— Bush.” As I write this, the meeting of CSU’s Board of Student Communications, which may decide McSwane’s editorial fate, has been pushed back to Wednesday, presumably to accommodate larger crowds of torch-bearing villagers. Advertisers pulled about $30,000 in ads, leading to budget cutbacks in the newsroom, while the profanity drew national attention to CSU. It may be a moot point already, but I’m hoping McSwane hangs in there.
Granted, the editorial is hardly a persuasive indictment of one of the worst Presidential administrations in US history. The taser reference has little to do with President Bush, and everything to do with the recent incident in which University of Florida police abused a student journalist for asking inconvenient questions about 2004 election fraud while Senator John Kerry patronizingly droned on. But it was McSwane’s gratuitous dropping of the F-bomb that riled most people. Personally, I don’t see what the big deal is about the word, or any word for that matter. I would much rather my kids be exposed to dirty words than the violence and death that permeate our culture. Is an F-bomb that offends worse than a cluster bomb that rips apart bodies? Of course not. At worst, reprimand McSwane for poor judgment, or praise him for igniting a national debate, but don’t sack him for having more courage and respect for the First Amendment than most American adults.
McSwane’s local campaign played out against the backdrop of the same story on a bigger stage, as Columbia University invited Ahmadinejad to give a speech before he appeared at the United Nations. Conservatives, especially those whipping up war fever with Iran, howled in outrage over giving such an “evil dictator” a platform. Unlike many of America’s allies, Ahmadinejad was actually elected to lead his country, which gives him the right to appear at the United Nations for its annual meetings, whether we approve his politics or not. Translations from Farsi (and the objectivity of the translators) are suspect, but Ahmadinejad has apparently questioned the reality of the Holocaust, challenged Israel’s right to exist, and pretends there’s no homosexuality in Iran.
I disagree with almost everything Ahmadinejad says, but I defend his right to say it. Even if you consider him “the enemy,” don’t you want to know the mind of your enemy? Don’t you want him unveiling his thoughts before the world so everyone can see him clearly? When has ignoring problems ever made them disappear? Besides, the First Amendment is needed precisely to protect the political speech we hate most, whether it is white supremacists stirring up racism, Ward Churchill discussing the “little Eichmanns” he says perished on September 11, or Rush Limbaugh claiming war opponents help al-Qaeda. We have to defend everyone’s free speech, or soon none of us will have any.
Universities have for centuries functioned as intellectual oases safe from the wrath of the king. Columbia did exactly what Columbia should do. In contrast, CU is shaming itself by trying to fire Churchill for uttering taboo thoughts. As for CSU, the jury is still out. For years, university officials designated a small area near the plaza as the campus “free speech zone.” And here I foolishly thought that the entire campus – every campus – was supposed to be a free speech zone.