Free Speech in Four Letters and Four Words

What Does Having Freedom of Speech Really Mean?


Published: October 11, 2007

I’m all for the expressive value of the F-word and our freedom to use it wherever we please, but I also think that when it’s printed in a four word editorial in the Colorado State University’s student newspaper, for example, it just looks stupid and inarticulate. About three weeks ago, the Rocky Mountain Collegian published a staff editorial consisting of four words “Taser This … F*** Bush.” This sparked a heated debate among members of the school’s community. Was this editorial done in bad taste? Is it an important exercise in free speech? Judging by the comments on the paper’s Web site, the public’s opinion seems to be split.

“Taser This … F*** Bush”—that would make for a great headline. I wish I had thought of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for a great editorial. Why stop at those four words? If that had been the headline to a scornful and derisive criticism of Bush, even if it was fully loaded with F-bombs, I would have admired it. If it had been a dark and cynical analysis of the recent Florida State University student tasering incident as evidence that our society is on the way to becoming a police state, I would have applauded. This would have been exercising our freedom of speech and press. F*** Bush and f*** the use of tasers to muffle the right of students to engage in journalistic interrogation! I agree with you, Rocky Mountain Collegian, but why did you make yourselves look like fools?

In some ways, the editorial was effective. People are once again talking about the freedom of speech. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ll exercise my right to express my opinion here. We’re missing the point about freedom of speech if what we’re focusing on is whether or not we can print or say the word “f***.” Just because you can print the F-word doesn’t mean that you should. I know that “f***” is a great word. There’s no doubt about it. I can’t think of any other word as adaptable as the F-word. Still, I won’t insist on showing the word in its full glory here because that’s gratuitous. It might discredit what I’m about to say next.

The F-word is strong enough to hold its own… in a spoken conversation. Tone of voice, facial expression, general context of the dialogue or situation is enough to support the F-bomb. I’m not talking about excessively tossing the word around—that’s just unnecessary, but I think we can all agree, everyone could use an occasional … “@$#*%” now and then. However, in print, “f***,” when it stands alone, is just a word. Even if it’s printed in a font size that is two times larger than the size of a regular headline (which is how the Rocky Mountain Collegian printed it), it’s still just lying there flatly.

“F***” is just a word. It shouldn’t be censored, but it’s not really an essential part of our freedom to speak. It wouldn’t be a great tragedy if it was done away with in print. Now if someone told me that I couldn’t publish an article about the idea of American freedom being a sham (hypothetically, of course), that would be devastating.

The freedom of speech and press is not about the right to direct “bad” words at our president, it’s about the free flow of ideas. It’s about being able to expose the paradox that, in this great (or not so great), nation you can print your views about why you think the taser incident was wrong or why you think Bush is f***ed up, yet you can’t ask a few argumentative questions during a speech without being tasered. If we think the freedom of speech means being able to toss around the f-word, then we don’t really understand what freedom means.