Advertisements usually sit quietly along the edge of a newspaper’s page,helping publishers to pay the bills and advertisers to sell a product.They are not supposed to alienate readers. But an ad published this springin more than 20 campus newspapers did just that.
The ad, which argued against paying monetary reparations to the descendantsof slaves, became front-page news when it provoked a rash of protests andnewspaper thefts by student groups who called it racist and offensive.Entitled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea — AndRacist Too,” the ad has forced student journalists to ask themselves whatrole advertising should play in their publications. As of early May, thead had appeared in 28 college newspapers and had been rejected by 41.
This is not the first time a newspaper ad has ignited controversy ona college campus. Students have reacted strongly to advertising that offendedor upset them for years, from diatribes arguing the Holocaust did not occurto offers of thousands of dollars to female college students willing todonate their eggs to infertile couples.
The decision to run controversial political ads is a matter of ethicsbut not of law. Political advertising is afforded even more First Amendmentprotection than ads for commercial products because it is selling an idearather than a product or service. But those First Amendment rights belongto student newspaper staff members, who have the right to reject any adthey choose.
That does not make it any easier for editors trying to decide whetherto publish a potentially controversial ad, however. And there does notseem to be much consensus among professionals or students on how that decisionshould be made.
When the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, led byauthor David Horowitz, decided to publicize its position on reparationsfor descendants of slaves, it had a limited budget. But by placing theadvertisement in some of the nation’s top college newspapers, the centergot a lot more publicity than it paid for.
At campuses from the University of California at Berkeley to Brown,students protested and even stole the newspapers that contained the ad.Some student editors apologized for running it while others insisted theydid nothing wrong. News stories, columns and editorials in professionalpublications from Newsweek to The Boston Globe recountedthe protests and thefts, commented on the state of the First Amendmenton college campuses and sometimes criticized the student editors who apologizedfor printing the ad.
Daniel Hernandez, editor of the University of California at Berkeley’sDailyCalifornian, published a front-page apology for running the ad afterstudents protested outside his office, destroyed or stole thousands ofcopies of the paper and demanded that the paper run 10 editorial columns,each refuting one of the 10 reasons against reparations. Hernandez saidpublishing the ad was a mistake because it had not been approved throughthe proper channels.
Protesters found the ad’s arguments that blacks have already receivedreparations in the form of welfare and affirmative action programs andthat blacks are indebted to the U.S. because it is the nation that setthem free to be particularly offensive.
Eleeza Agopian, editor of the University of California at Davis’ paper,said The Aggie also ran the ad by mistake. She said she has finalapproval over ads with political content, but she did not approve thisad. As a result, she apologized for its publication.
“It violated our policy,” she said. “We have a responsibility to bemindful of what we print.”
But other editors said student papers should not apologize for whatthey publish-even if such ads violate their own policies.
“That doesn’t warrant an apology,” said Julie Bosman, editor of TheBadger Herald, one of two student newspapers at the University of Wisconsinat Madison. She suggested that editors publish a letter explaining thesituation without apologizing.
The Badger Herald did not apologize to the nearly 100 studentswho arrived at its office and stole papers to protest the newspaper’s decisionto publish the ad. Bosman said The Herald staff refused to be intimidatedby protesters and stood by its decision.
Although protesters called the ad racist, Bosman disagrees. She saidTheHerald will not print an ad that is libelous, in poor taste or illegal.
“Horowitz’s ad doesn’t apply to any of these,” she said, adding thatshe would print the ad again if faced with that decision.
She said her staff was “very, very lucky” to have witnessed what shecalled a “lesson in defending” the First Amendment.
Student editors at The Brown Daily Herald said they were defendingthe First Amendment when they refused to apologize to both students andfaculty who protested their decision to print Horowitz’s ad. Upset studentsstole almost the entire press run of the newspaper a few days after itpublished the ad, and 57 faculty members sent a letter to interim universityPresident Sheila Blumstein expressing their unhappiness with the ad’s publication.Editors decided to reprint 1,000 copies of the stolen issue, which theydistributed from a centralized location themselves to ensure no copieswould be stolen.
Despite the theft and protests, the ad was worth printing, said NickRusso, general business manager of The Herald.
“I think everyone felt that it was the right thing to do because wewere showing that our paper is a forum for free speech,” Russo said. “Weare not going to control the views that are expressed in the paper becausethat’s what it is for — an open forum for opinion and debate.”
Student editors should be prepared to deal with controversial advertising,said Ron Spielberger, executive director of College Media Advisers. Spielberger,who has spent 20 years as the advertising adviser for the University ofMemphis’ student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, said newspaper staffsshould formulate specific advertising guidelines and put them in writing.Included in those guidelines should be a procedure for dealing with adsthat are controversial or not covered by the guidelines.
The question editors should ask themselves about a potentially contentiousad is “how is this going to affect the readers?” Spielberger said, addingthat student editors may want to take the opportunity to re-examine theiradvertising policies when controversial ads are published at other schools.
“In the case of the Holocaust ad and this reparations ad those are sounique that I can’t imagine that anyone would have thought that those thingswere coming,” Spielberger said. “However, once something like the Holocaustad comes along, that should have gotten wide enough notoriety that probablythe guidelines for advertising for college newspapers should have beenrevisited.”
Spielberger also noted that publishing politically charged ads sometimesmeans the message will reach more than the student newspaper’s readership.
The purchasers of these ads “are looking for publicity,” he said. “Ifthese ads had been placed and there had been no controversy, then the placersof these ads would be highly disappointed. Typically what they’re lookingfor is this additional free advertising.”
Horowitz contended, however, that he did not expect the reaction thead received but simply intended to provide another viewpoint on the issueof reparations.
“I never realized it was going to be so big,” he said. “If that weretrue, I would have been famous 40 years ago.”
Russo said the staff of the Brown newspaper evaluates each ad individuallyand does not have a broad policy regarding what it will and will not print.
“The Horowitz ad was controversial, but it wasn’t so controversial thatit was offensive — it wasn’t hate speech, it didn’t have any overtly raciststatements in it,” Russo said, adding that The Herald wouldnot print advertising its staff deemed racist.
“If we received an ad from the KKK that was overtly racist, obviouslywe wouldn’t place it in the paper,” he said.
This case-by-case determination is exactly what Charles Davis, an at-largecampus adviser for the Society of Professional Journalists, advocates.He said establishing written advertising policy can sometimes be dangerous.
“I’m not a big fan of establishing written policy that then may be usedto beat you about the head,” Davis said. “We have an untrammeled FirstAmendment right to run what we want to run.”
According to Davis, who is also a journalism professor at the Universityof Missouri, there is no clear line that student editors can draw to determinewhat is and is not appropriate.
“That’s what makes policy so difficult-policies are based on clear lines,”he said. “That’s not the way the world works, and it’s particularly notthe way the world works in editorial or advertising content. I can seeall kinds of nice, politically correct, happy reasons for having a policy,but I don’t like any of them.”
Paul Wilson, former editor of the University of Missouri’s student newspaper,said The Maneater does not have a blanket advertising policy becausethere is no clear way to determine what is and is not appropriate, in partbecause of the high staff turnover rate.
“You don’t want to confuse the community with a policy that might changefrom year to year,” Wilson said.
Tom Rolnicki, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Associationand the Associated Collegiate Press, suggests students formulate an advertisingpolicy that is flexible enough to deal with unexpected situations.
“There should be some leeway so an ad that may be unusual could be reviewedfor acceptance even if it may not conform to existing guidelines,” Rolnickisaid. “The acceptance or rejection of an ad should be based on legal concernsforemost, and secondarily upon the standards of the student community asperceived by the student staff and the paper’s own goals and mission.”
Davis said he is uncomfortable with the idea of journalists apologizingfor running something that ends up offending someone. He suggests newspaperspromote open discussion and publish counter-commentary and opposing editorials,instead of apologizing.
But when Princeton University’s student newspaper did just that withthe anti-reparations ad, Horowitz refused to pay. In the same issue inwhich The Daily Princetonian published the ad, it also ran an editorialcalling the ad racist and offensive and promising to donate the revenuefrom the ad to the Trenton, N.J., chapter of the National Urban League.
“We do not want to profit from Horowitz’s racism,” the editorial said.”Donating the money seems like the right thing to do.”Horowitz then issued a statement refusing to pay for the ad unlessthe newspaper publicly apologized for publishing the editorial.
The Princetonian’s editorial was defamatory, Horowitz said, addingthat he is refusing to pay because as a public figure, he would not wina libel suit.
“We have libel laws that do not allow you to sue if you’re a publicfigure — or a quasi-public figure the way I am — if someone calls youa racist or a moron. There’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.
Horowitz asserted that the real reason the Princetonian editorspublished the editorial was to protect themselves from future professionalblacklisting.
“What they’re really saying is that we would like to censor this, butwe also want to become journalists someday, and we can see that the journalisticcommunity is frowning on censorship-so we don’t want to hurt our job possibilities.So we won’t censor it, even though we want to, but we’ll blame Horowitzfor forcing us into this situation,” he said, referring to criticism thatfollowed some editors’ decisions to apologize for running the ad.
In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, Daily Cal editorHernandez described the flak he received for his decision to apologize,saying, “Critics — from executive editors to retired military officers– have told me I will never get a job in journalism, ever.”
Editors at The Princetonian did not return calls made to theiroffice by the Report, but Davis said it is ridiculous for Horowitzto refuse to pay The Princetonian for publishing his ad just becausethe paper published an editorial he did not like.
“I think it’s an utterly meritless argument,” he said. “The issues areseparate. One’s about the editorial and the other’s a business transactionin which someone buys an ad. If you buy an ad, you must pay for the ad.”
Many college papers decided, however, that the money from a full-pagead was not worth the problems that would likely follow.
“It’s been our experience to simply shy away from controversy,” saidJesse Friedman, managing editor of Brandeis University’s student newspaper,TheJustice. Friedman said the staff reached the decision not to publishHorowitz’s ad with little discussion.
The Justice did run a Holocaust revisionist ad in December 1995but now has a specific policy against publishing such advertisements, Friedmansaid. Students protested on both sides of the issue after the Holocaustad ran.
“I’m glad we didn’t run it,” said Joe Nicholson, editor of the Universityof Washington’s UW Daily, referring to the decision not to publishHorowitz’s ad. The advertising manager, who determines which ads are published,was uncomfortable with it, Nicholson said.
But others say newspapers should not avoid printing controversial adsfor fear of retaliation from readers.
“There are times when [running an ad] doesn’t fit the mission of thepublication at all,” Davis said. “But a newspaper’s mission, particularlyon a college campus, is pretty darn broad. It’s hard to argue there aresome ads that work better for your readership and some that don’t becauseyour readership is everybody on that campus.”
“Open debate and open discourse should never be sacrificed for comfort,”said Greg Pessin, editor of Duke University’s daily, The Chronicle.Inaddition to publishing the anti-reparations ad, Pessin said The Chronicleprinted an anti-abortion ad this year and a Holocaust revisionist ad in1991.
But when Bradley Smith, who paid for many of the Holocaust revisionistads, wanted to place one that claimed evidence of the Holocaust had beenfalsified, The Chronicle refused. The ad was not accurate and offeredonly unsubstantiated evidence, which is why the newspaper said no, Pessinsaid.
He said he believes the university setting should be open to alternativeviews on sensitive subjects.
“At a university, especially, we should value the free exchange of ideas,”Pessin said. “Academic freedom cannot be realized until everyone is heard.”
However, Rolnicki said student journalists should be careful when decidingwhat to publish, even if it is done to promote open debate.
“Student ad managers and editors need to remember that money isn’t everything,”he said. “There are other ways to open up a discussion on an issue thanpublishing a bad ad in the name of free expression.”
View the text of David Horowitz’s anti-reparations ad at: http://frontpagemag.com/horowitzsnotepad/2001/rep_ad.htm