A price on their head

Observations on free speech

Student journalists on the Rocky Mountain Collegian, Colorado State University's student newspaper, have been dealt a sharp lesson in the limits of the American constitution's First Amendment, which protects free speech.

Following the newspaper's publication of a "profane" leading article - "Taser this . . . Fuck Bush" - in September, which hit the national headlines and led to advertisers withdrawing support, the president of the university, Larry Penley, began talks with America's largest newspaper publisher, Gannett, publishers of USA Today, about a "partnership" between the Collegian and the company's local paper, the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

The undergraduate editor, J David McSwane, insists the editorial, prompted by the tasering of a student protester by security guards at Florida University, was intended to rouse students to discuss the importance of free speech, not to cause offence.

"The editorial board felt very strongly that it's time college students, especially CSU students, start talking about issues," he said.

But the expletive use led advertisers to withdraw $30,000 of business and attracted the wrath of Penley. "We have found the unintended consequences of such a bold statement to be disheartening," conceded McSwane.

After admonishing but not ousting McSwane, Penley hinted that that would not be the end of the matter. "While student journalists enjoy all the privileges and protections of the First Amendment, they must also accept full responsibility for the choices they make," he announced, before opening secret negotiations with Gannett to explore whether the company might take a stake in the Collegian or combine its efforts with its Fort Collins paper. Neither McSwane nor any other student was invited to take part in the talks.

"They knew what I was going to say: that the Collegian has been here for 117 years, and it'd be a disgrace to be sold to a media giant," McSwane said. The merger has invited condemnation, not least from other student editors who fear their own university authorities could sell their newspapers from under them.

"If CSU's president gets his way, the university could be known as the school that sold its newspaper to a national corporation against the will of its students, its alumni, and journalism professors nationwide," declared the Harvard Crimson. Undeterred, Penley has set up a committee to assess the Coloradoan's proposals.

Bob Moore, the editor of the Coloradoan, said there were commercial reasons behind Gannett's move. "You're talking about a city of 140,000 people, and more than 30,000 of them have direct ties to the university," he said. "It's a part of our community that we've wanted to serve for a long time." Student journalists will hear their fate on 10 March, when the merger criteria will be posted on the university's website. The committee assessing the merger will put its recommendation to Penley in May.

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This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters