Story by Eric Schucht
Public trust in the media is waning, the White House is openly targeting the press and universities across the nation are under fire for how they have handled students’ and speakers’ expression of controversial opinions. Now more than ever, it’s clear we need to talk about our Constitutional right to freedom of speech.
That’s why, in celebration of the First Amendment, the UO is hosting the Freedom of Expression Series co-sponsored by the School of Journalism and Communication and the School of Law. The series, which launched Feb. 13 and runs through March, features various speakers and events, including student roundtables on Feb. 23 and March 9 facilitated by SOJC instructors Lisa Heyamoto and Todd Milbourn.
The debate over freedom of expression, of course, is nothing new to college campuses. In fact, many student newspapers have a long and turbulent history with censorship, and the UO’s Daily Emerald is no exception.
I recently learned about an incident a decade ago that may be one of the most interesting cases of censorship in the history of our student paper, which declared its independence from the UO administration in 1971 after repeated disagreements over editorial content.
On Oct. 1, 2007, the Emerald’s print edition landed at news kiosks across campus, just like it did every Monday morning. But when readers opened the paper, they were surprised to find that the header on the second page didn’t read “The Daily Emerald,” but “The Daily Barometer” — the student newspaper at Oregon State University. The Barometer’s second page had somehow ended up in both papers. The printer claimed to have made an error, but others saw it as intentional.
“We talked to the printer, and there is no way that could accidently happen,” said Kathy Carbone, the paper’s business manager at the time. “Somebody at the press chose to censor it on that Monday.”
The mysteriously censored page didn’t stay secret for long. Published the following day, the page featured one of the most controversial articles in The Daily Emerald’s history.
Let’s back up a bit. A few weeks earlier, a student at the University of Florida had been forcibly removed by security at an event featuring then-U.S. Senator John Kerry. After the student screamed, “Don’t taze me, bro!” security proceeded to taze him and drag him away. A video of the incident went viral with over 7 million views on YouTube.
Outraged, Colorado State University’s student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian — which had a history of writing pieces critical of then-president George W. Bush — wrote a four-word opinion piece in big, bold letters: “Taser this… Fuck Bush.”
While the campus administration had no say over the content of the paper, it did have the power to remove J. David McSwan, the paper’s editor-in-chief, from his position. The story about their efforts to do so was picked up by major news outlets around the nation, including Fox News and The Guardian.
In response to the outcry and criticism from the article, the The Collegian wrote: “It’s interesting and scary that the use of the F-word garners more attention than an intelligent, well-researched editorial. Yes, we could have used our usual 250 words to discuss the same topic, but who would have read it?”
The editorial board at the The Daily Emerald agreed.
“We felt that we should write something in support of that paper and of speech,” said Jobetta Hedelman, a member of the Emerald’s editorial board at the time. “Firing a journalist for the words they use is a dangerous precedent, and we were trying to stand up for that.”
What started out as a joke at the weekly editorial board meeting, Hedelman said, soon became the article’s headline: “Fire this...Fuck Censorship”
“Usually the Emerald won’t run the word ‘fuck’ at all, much less in a bold headline,” the piece read. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, however, which makes this the perfect moment for a strong statement in support of free speech.”
Many were shocked at the supposed censorship of the article at the hands of the printer, including the current editor-in-chief of The Daily Emerald, Jack Pitcher.
“That is not the job of our printer to decide what’s going in and out of the paper,” Pitcher said. “I’m glad they were able to get that fixed and run it the next day.”
The article stated that the purpose of the headline was to support college newspapers’ “right to run profanity,” but not everyone saw it that way. On Oct. 15, 2007, the Emerald published a letter to the editor written by Eugene resident Lisa Priaulx.
“Expletives are for those who have limited vocabulary, intelligence and/or imagination. And, of course, middle school students who think they’ll look cool or mature using ‘naughty words.’ Which they don’t,” Priaulx wrote. “So if you want to be perceived as having something to say worth reading ... skip the profanity.”
While some were offended, others saw the headline as an exercise in freedom of expression.
“It’s kind of the soul of freedom of speech,” Carbone said. “It’s really the heart of the matter to be able to do this. It's a huge statement of the power of the First Amendment.”
“There are some things that may not be appropriate or nice to say,” Pitcher said, “but the fact that we have the right to do that is super important. The second someone comes in and limits what you can say on any level, that gets kind of scary.”
In the end, the The Collegian’s editor-in-chief wasn’t fired. And at The Daily Emerald’s end-of-year celebration, the paper’s staff presented its editor-in-chief with a framed copy of the “Fire this...Fuck Censorship” page.
The moral of this story is that, as journalists, we must constantly fight for and protect the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. While the actions of all those students may have disappeared from public memory over the years, the ideals they believed in are more important than ever. The ability to express yourself — in whatever words you choose — is a foundation of American democracy.
What’s more, the job of a journalist isn't to say only what others wish to hear. It is to say what needs to be said, even in the face of pushback from authority or other consequences. It may not always be pretty, but it is always necessary.
Eric Schucht is a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the SOJC as well as a minor in multimedia and a certificate in film studies. He has written for The Daily Emerald, The Cottage Grove Sentinel and The Creswell Chronicle.