To print, or not to print: Whether to run a controversial ad not an easy question for college papers

Advertisements are an economic necessityfor many student newspapers, but when their content is controversial, studenteditors may wonder whether the revenue is worth the headache.

From Harvard University to The Universityof Wisconsin, college newspapers throughout the country have faced harshcriticism for both printing and refusing to print controversial advertisements.Running offensive advertisements can cause a newspaper to come under attack forwhat some allege is a show of support for the ideas advocated by the ads.Rejecting such ads can also create negative publicity for newspapers as theyface complaints from the advertisers.

For student journalists, once acontroversial ad is submitted, it often seems there is no rightanswer.

After it declined to distribute a 12-pageanti-abortion insert with its paper, University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh’sTheAdvance-Titan faced publiccriticism from Pro-Life Wisconsin, the organization that submitted the ad. Thefull-color insert, a product of Human Life Alliance, includes stories of peoplewho regretted obtaining abortions and information about fetal development andpotential health risks.

Editor-in-Chief Andrew Munger decided notto include the insert after discussing it with both the advertising manager andthe paper’s adviser.

WhileTheAdvance-Titan does run politicaladvertisements, Munger said this insert, which did not offer any service and wasintended only to persuade, seemed too likely to lead to an argument throughadvertisements.

“I didn’t want to have twocompeting sides arguing through advertisements,” he said.”It’s not the correct venue (for debate).” Munger said he hadput a stop to an abortion debate on theAdvance-Titan‘sopinion page last year.

Pro-Life Wisconsin spokeswoman VirginiaZignego accused the newspaper of censorship, and said the rejection showed thestudents’ bias.

“Part of the American tradition isgetting both sides of the argument, and then supposedly you have theintelligence to make your own decision,” she said, explaining while shethinks student newspapers do have a right to reject advertising, they should notdo it to censor ideas.

Munger said his decision to reject the addid not reflect the ideology of the newspaper, but added he would have preferredto ignore the controversy altogether. He said he thought Pro-Life Wisconsin hadhoped to create controversy with the ad, pointing to the press coverage of hisrefusal to run it.

“We know what they want, andwe’re not going to give it to them,” Munger said, explaining areluctance to engage with Pro-Life Wisconsin and further thecontroversy.

Across the state, at another campus inthe University of Wisconsin system,The StudentVoice at University of Wisconsin -River Falls took a different approach to the same advertisement.

Editor-in-Chief Eric Pringle said he metwith the advertising manager, business manager and assistant editor about theinsert.

“We used a sort of roundtablediscussion to determine the pros and cons of running the insert,” he said.”Throughout this process, wemade sure that the discussion of the amount of money we would receive fromrunning the insert was not a factor.”

The staff chose to run the ad, anddecided to take a preemptive strike against any potential criticism. Prior torunning the advertisements in question, they printed an editorial explainingtheir advertising policy and the reasoning behind their decision.

“Although we didn’tnecessarily need to warn (students) that some controversial ads may be appearingin future issues of theVoice,we felt it was a good idea to keep them informed of this decision and let themknow that their campus newspaper doesn’t discriminate against certainadvertisers because they may have different beliefs,” Pringlesaid.

In their discussions, Pringle and theother editors relied on the StudentVoice’s advertising policy aspart of the rationale for the decision and said it would guide ad decisions inthe future.

The ad policy that was so influential inthe StudentVoice‘s decision, though, wasnot created until after the paper was faced with deciding whether to run theanti-abortion insert and an ad for a cigar shop.

“Before this semester, theStudentVoice did not have an advertisingpolicy –it was just kind of a pick-and-choose basis,” Pringle said.

“This was a little shocking to me.”

TheStudentVoice‘s newly crafted adpolicy gives editors “the right to refuse any advertisement in the case ofpossible liability or offensive content.” It mentions ads that arediscriminatory or that violate the law as ones that will berejected.

“Our goal was to keep it broad interms of saying what kind of advertising we will and will not accept, becauseexceptions always occur,” Pringle said.

He said he does not know if the decisionwould have been easier if the paper had already had an ad policy, adding that hewould expect any controversial advertisement would requirediscussion.

“With a policy, it makes it mucheasier to make decisions, as we now have some established guidelines to aid usin –and help back up –our decisions,” he said.

Bitsy Faulk, president of the executiveboard of College Newspaper Business and Advertising Managers, called advertisingpolicies “critical” for student newspapers.

She said that these policies not onlyguide students when making their decisions, they can also protect them fromclaims of bias.

When you have an advertising policy,”you’re basing your decisions on policy, not on emotion,”Faulk said.

Advertising policies tend to consist of astatement that makes clear the paper’s right to refuse and descriptions oftypes of advertisements that would be rejected under the policy. These ofteninclude ads that are libelous, offensive or discriminatory.

“(A policy) should bestraightforward enough to let advertisers know what’s okay but never sorestrictive that it limits the students’ ability to reject any ad,” said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press LawCenter.

He said policies should give studentnewspapers the right to reject ads for any reason. Using words like”offensive” or “controversial” leaves room foradvertisers to argue that their ads do not meet thosequalifications.At BucknellUniversity, a policy’s wording caused the Foundation for Individual Rightsin Education (FIRE) to question why student newspaperTheBucknellian rejected itsad.

The paper’s policy states: “The Editorial Board of TheBucknellian reserves the right todeny advertisements if offensive, illegal, or in bad taste.”

“We didn’t see anythingoffensive, illegal or in bad taste about the ad,” said Adam Kissel,director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. The advertisementannounced that Bucknell had made FIRE’s list of schools that allow theleast amount of freedom on campus, naming Dean of Students Gerald Commerford asamong the administrators who had stifled student speech by shutting down eventsput on by the Bucknell University Conservatives Club. The ad included a pictureof a “stimulus dollar” with President Barack Obama’s face,originally handed out by that club.

Kissel said he didn’t understandwhy independent student newspapers would choose to put restrictions onadvertising.

“An independent newspaper has theright to make decisions about commercial versus noncommercial speech in a waythat a government entity doesn’t,” he said, adding, “I thinkit’s an interesting question why a student newspaper would want to be morerestrictive than the First Amendment allows.”

Lenore Flower, editor-in-chief ofTheBucknellian, said she declined torun FIRE’s ad because she objected to Commerford being singled out forcriticism as possibly libelous and something that was better suited to theopinion page. She said she suggested that the group either change the wording ofits advertisement or write a letter to the editor instead.

After learning that decision, Kisselcontested the idea that the ad could be libelous and pointed out that thepaper’s reasons for rejection did not match up with its advertisingpolicy.

While he said independent studentnewspapers should and do have the right to reject any advertisements, Kisselsaid students should consider how rejections might affect the public’sperception of them.

“The associated outcome is that thepublic knows that, if certain kinds of content are rejected, then thepaper’s objectivity is perhaps not as solid as if it accepts allads,” he said.

Flower said she makes the decision aboutcontroversial ads by putting herself in the position of a reader.

“I basically look at it from theperspective of, if I opened up this newspaper, if I wasn’t involved in itand I saw this ad, would I think less of the newspaper as a result of thead?” she said. “And if the answer is yes, I refuse to run thead.”

When deliberating whether to run acontroversial ad, Faulk said it is important for student newspapers to”use your best judgment, rely on your policy and have a policy in placefor your protection.”

Although independent and public-schoolstudent newspapers can be legally responsible if ads are libelous, obscene or aninvasion of someone’s privacy, they are allowed to print anyadvertisements they choose, Goldstein said.

“Offensive speech is exactly whatthe First Amendment is supposed to protect,” he said.

While public school officials are barredfrom engaging in censorship or viewpoint discrimination, Goldstein said studenteditors are not obliged to print any advertisement and rejecting an ad is not aviolation of the advertiser’s First Amendment rights.

After being criticized for running anall-text ad asking suggesting the Germans never used gas chambers during theHolocaust, The HarvardCrimson defended its legal right toprint whatever its editors choose.

That right must be balanced, though, withcareful deliberation when a controversial advertisement is involved, accordingto an editorial in which TheCrimson apologized for the ad,attributing its publication to a miscommunication that occurred during thetransition from summer to the new school year.

“Although newspapers command theright to publish whatever they see fit –a right that should not beinfringed upon –it remains a journalistic responsibility to carefullyevaluate what is actually appropriate to print,” it said.

Goldstein said student editors may rejectads for any reason, even an ideological one, because a student newspaper issupposed to represent the students.

“If the students are really opposedto an issue, then they should reject that ad,” he said.