A few days ago I wrote the entry, “McSwane Is No Defender of Free Speech.” J. David McSwane, editor of Colorado State University’s Rocky Mountain Collegian, published what I described as “a four-word, nonsensical, profane utterance in place of an actual editorial” — “Taser this? F– Bush,” spelling out the F-bomb. (I’ve seen the punctuation between “this” and “F—” published three ways — a question mark, ellipses, and a dash — but that’s an irrelevant detail.)
Unfortunately, various journalists and commentators continue to completely misunderstand the concept of free speech. Indeed, by setting up a false conception of “free speech,” they are actively undermining real free speech.
Free speech, as I wrote in greater detail previously, means that you are free to say and write what you want, with your own resources, without suffering any force or threat of force from the government.
Free speech implies that you are free to start a newspaper and establish policy for that newspaper. It means that you are free to hire and fire writers at your discretion. If you are forcibly prevented from hiring and firing writers at your discretion, then your rights of free speech are being violated. If you choose to fire a writer, then you are certainly NOT violating the free-speech rights of that writer, who may continue to say and write whatever he or she wishes, only not with your resources.
There are three complications.
First, generally newspapers are owned by corporations. This just means that policy is set according to the legally established governors of the corporation (the voting stock holders acting through a management team).
Second, typically newspapers hire writers according to a contract. Most assuredly, newspapers do NOT offer contracts that allow writers to write whatever they want. If writers violate the terms of their contracts, then they may be fired before the contract (otherwise) expires.
Third, college newspapers are affiliated with tax-funded institutions, a condition that, as I discussed previously, generates all sorts of intractable problems, as the tax-funded advocacy of any idea automatically violates somebody’s rights of free speech. Nevertheless, as I also discussed, this issue is irrelevant in the case of McSwane, because McSwane failed to uphold the clear, published policies of the paper that are in accordance with normal standards of professional journalism. The tax funding of colleges does not imply that all standards fly out the window.
With that context established, I’ll take a look at a new article that was brought to my attention by a reader.
UCLA’s Daily Bruin published an article on the matter today (October 8). The story is by Jessica Roy:
Since it ran, the [four-word] message has sparked a nationwide dialogue about freedom of speech and the rights of college newspapers.
“Even though I think that it was in bad taste, it’s certainly their right to go ahead and express whatever views it is that they have,” said Arthur Lechtholz-Zey, chief executive officer of L.O.G.I.C. (Liberty, Objectivity, Greed, Individualism and Capitalism), a UCLA student group associated with the Ayn Rand Institute, which promotes objectivism and the value of philosophy in general.
“Certainly I don’t think anybody should be punished for this,” he added.
The Board of Student Communications at Colorado State is an independent group that oversees the newspaper, which relies on advertising rather than student fees for its funding. …
But Ryan Dunn, a third-year law student at UCLA, said he believes the paper overstepped the boundaries of freedom of speech and the press.
“I think there’s obviously a limit (to freedom of speech). They need to be aware of what their words can cause,” Dunn said. …
Lechtholz-Zey said advertisers were well within their own freedom of speech rights to cancel any affiliation with the paper. …
What the article reveals is that these American college students have no idea what is the significance or meaning of the First Amendment or the right of free speech.
It is debatable whether the CSU paper is truly “independent” or a part of the tax-funded institution. However, if it is “independent,” then any possible First Amendment concern about firing McSwane evaporates.
I was most disappointed to read the comments of Lechtholz-Zey; Objectivists should know better. Lechtholz-Zey makes two errors. First, he confuses the paper’s right to publish what it wants with the paper’s right to fire McSwane. Second, he conflates getting fired with government-backed punishment. Only the latter actually violates First Amendment rights. At least Lechtholz-Zey gets it right when discussing the rights of advertisers.
But Dunn’s comments are far worse. Dunn first suggests that firing McSwane would have somehow violated his rights of free speech. It would not have done so. More seriously, Dunn outright endorses the limitation of free speech. The right of free speech is absolute — within its context. For example, prohibiting somebody from yelling “fire!” in a theater, when there is no fire, is no limitation of that person’s rights of free speech. The person has no such right. Instead, the prohibition protects the theater owners’ rights of property and expression. When people start talking about limiting free speech, then actual abuses of free speech are just around the corner.
What is frightening is that many of tomorrow’s journalists and lawyers — the people who should be most concerned with defending the First Amendment and the right of free speech — have no idea of what rights are.