So here's something you may not have known: All it takes to ignite a media firestorm and draw national attention is two words (refer to the headline). Just make sure it's in all capital letters and a font 30 times bigger than this.
That exactly what happened to The Rocky Mountain Collegian, the student newspaper at Colorado State University, which ran an editorial on Sept. 21 featuring those two words preceded by "Taser this…", a reference to a student who was Tasered by police for being unruly at a forum at the University of Florida featuring Sen. John Kerry, and followed by a note that the message represented the views of the Collegian's editorial board. That's it, the whole editorial.
Needless to say, Fox News, CNN and more or less the entire blogosphere jumped on the story. Conservatives blasted the editorial, calling for the resignation of 20-year-old editor J. David McSwayne, while free speech advocates rushed to defend the paper. Responsibility for the editorial fell largely on McSwayne, who professed that it was not meant to incite anger, but rather to facilitate discussion of the issue of free speech on campus. The editorial accompanied a front-page article addressing that issue, which McSwayne said was a response to a perceived sense of apathy among Colorado State students about that topic.
There's no question that McSwayne, who was publicly admonished by the university but allowed to keep his position, had a constitutional right to say what he did. But that of course, doesn't answer the question of whether he should have or not. God knows I sympathize with McSwayne's position of attempting to reach out to student body that seems largely apathetic about many issues (maybe Geneseo kids are too focused on those much-publicized high academic demands?), but no real journalist can condone the way in which the college newspaper's editorial page was utilized.
While the editorial undoubtedly succeeded in its mission to get people talking about free speech issues, it cannot be considered a legitimate journalistic pursuit, because it failed to fulfill the other inherent purpose of op/ed pieces: to legitimately inform readers on the issues they deal with, and present an intelligent perspective and insight for the sake of facilitating thought and discussion. The Collegian's editorial was an irresponsible bastardization of the way that responsible journalism should operate, because the fact of the matter is that wildly blasting open a battleground for debate without real, informed information and opinion to guide the conversation isn't facilitating at all: it's provocative, mindless rabble-rousing.
Simply put, the inane way that the First Amendment was implemented was the debate, and not the real issue of the free speech and any responsible limitations that should be placed on it.
McSwayne, in fact, publicly admitted to Denver's CBS4 that the editorial was unprofessional and that given the opportunity to do it over, he wouldn't. I guess it finally occurred to him that while, yes, he's allowed to say what he wants thanks to free speech, stupid speech just isn't worth saying at all, especially on an editorial page.
On that note: my newspaper could beat up your newspaper. Wait… if you had one! Ah, it's nice being the editor.