Editors pull classified ad after Wright State University administrators threaten to revoke paper's funding

OHIO — Administrators at Wright State University ordered journalists at the school’s student newspaper to pull a classified advertisement and threatened to pull all school funding if they did not, students say.

A few days before The Guardian at Wright State went to press last month, Alabama-based The First Freedom signed a four-week contract with the paper’s advertising department to print a help-wanted ad, which asked for interested students to distribute its tabloid around the area, Guardian business manager Jared Holloway said.

“EARN MONEY distributing a rebel tabloid that dares, in today’s ‘freaking for diversity’ climate, to represent even straight Whites. See www.firstfreedom.net and, if interested, write TFF, PO Box 385, Silverhill, AL 36576,” the classified ad said.

The First Freedom’s website states it is operated by the Nation of Aryans Against Commie Putrefaction, and the tabloid’s motto is “Inviting the Zionist-controlled media’cracy to meet a rising free South.”

A staff designer saw the ad the day before publication and alerted The Guardians editorial board about the website’s racist leanings, but after an editorial board meeting students chose to print the ad because they supported The First Freedom’s First Amendment rights, Holloway said. The classified ad itself did not have overtly racist slurs, which made it more difficult to justify refusing to print it, he said.

“In our advertising guidelines, we have a list of things that are absolute no’s, like illegal drug use,” Holloway said. “But there are other things that are up to editorial staff discretion, and this was one of those.”

The first two weeks of publishing went by without incident, but last week a student complained to university officials about the ad’s offensiveness, said Vice President of Student Affairs Dan Abrahamowicz. Angry students also talked about the ad to multiple local media outlets.

“I got an email from an African-American student who was a former president of student government who was upset because the ad was for a white supremacist group,” Abrahamowicz said. “I asked (Department of Student Activities officials) to look into it.”

As media controversy about the students’ decision to print the ad increased, administrators told student reporters the publicity reflected negatively on the university, Holloway said. Gary Dickstein, assistant vice president for community standards and student conduct, told Holloway and Editor-in-Chief Brandon Semler of the school’s decision in a meeting at the newspaper’s office early Thursday afternoon.

“They said, ‘You need to be careful when running these advertisements,’” Holloway said. “Then they said, ‘If you keep making a scene, we could possibly pull funding.’”

Later that day, The Guardian explained its decision to publish the ad but distanced itself from The First Freedom’s ideology. The story said the paper would no longer print the ad, which has since been removed from The Guardian’s website, said Kegan Sickels, the paper’s accountant.

Monday, Holloway, Semler and Sickels met with Debbie Lamp, the school’s assistant director for student activities, and another student activities employee, where editors again stated they would not print the ad, Holloway said. At that meeting, Lamp agreed to put the school’s order in writing, at the request of the editors.

“I want to remind you of the discussion that Dr. Dickstein had with The Guardian,” Lamp wrote in an email to the editors. “At that meeting Dr. Dickstein informed The Guardian staff that the university’s stance on the ad was that the ad needed to be pulled and not run again or the University would no longer fund The Guardian.

“That is the university’s stance and the official notification to The Guardian about this issue.”

Sickels said the editorial board decided to pull the ad as a result of “verbal advice” from administrators. Staffers also wanted to preserve the paper’s reputation on campus and end negative discussions about the ad’s publication, he said.

Editors wanted the school’s order in writing to protect them in case The First Freedom sued them for breach of contract, Sickels said.

“In order to decrease our liability, we were going to keep printing the ad unless the university told us in writing to pull it,” Sickels said. “We didn’t want to get sued for violating (The First Freedom’s) First Amendment rights, and now the university took on that liability.”

Reached Tuesday, Abrahamowicz said that Lamp’s email was not reflective of the university’s stance on the matter and that he has asked the Office of Community Standards and Student Conduct, which monitors the Office of Student Activities, to clarify what it meant.

“It’s the editor’s choice as to what ads he runs,” Abrahamowicz said. “Sometimes people get heated in their perspective on things. Perhaps (student life employees) heard a lot more from other students who feel offended by the ad, but that’s not the university’s position.”

But Dickstein confirmed in an interview that Lamp’s email is reflective of the university’s position, in contrast to what Abrahamowicz says. Dickstein said he met with Holloway and Semler Tuesday morning to further discuss the university’s reasons for restricting the ad.

“It’s a situation where they knowingly accepted money for an organization who wants to hire students to disseminate a paper that is counter to the mission of our institution,” Dickstein said. “Someone that spouts white supremacy is counter to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The Guardian, while student-run, is not financially independent from the university, Dickstein said. He said he told Semler and Holloway that it was ultimately their decision to publish the ad, but said that if they decided to run the ad, the school would likely “reevaluate its relationship” with The Guardian.

“Not only do they receive financial support, they get some prime office space,” Dickstein said. “All of their equipment is paid for by the university … If they were an independent paper and didn’t receive a dime of support from the university, I don’t even know if we would even have this conversation.”

At least 75 percent of The Guardian’s funding comes from advertising revenue, with the remainder coming from the Office of Student Activities, Holloway said. The Guardian received $35,000 from the university’s student organizations fund, Sickels said.

Student Press Law Center attorney advocate Adam Goldstein said Wright State’s financial support of The Guardian increases rather than alleviates their need to respect students’ First Amendment rights to publish as they see fit. If The Guardian decided to print the ad, it would constitute “retaliatory censorship” if the university stripped the paper of its funding or equipment, which is unconstitutional, he said.

“The university’s funding shouldn’t be used as leverage to regulate the paper’s speech,” Goldstein said.

Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said state entities need to have a “compelling” reason to legally regulate commercial ads. Many newspapers around the country have ethical standards saying they will not print ads for hate groups, but there is no blanket legal prohibition on the books, he said.

“Why specifically should (The Guardian) not run this if it’s an advertisement for a legal product or service?” Hetzel said. “We have to sometimes support speech with which we totally disagree.”

Olaf Childress, The First Freedom editor, said that his publication has received a “positive response” from its ads in The Guardian. There are people who don’t want “alternate media” such as The First Freedom to exist, but the First Amendment protects all citizens’ opinions and beliefs, no matter how controversial, he said.

“Some of the people that are calling the shots on what’s controversial … they may be controversial themselves,” Childress said. “There are controversial people in the world, and it would be a bleak world without a few controversial people.”

Sickels said editorial staff members are working on revising their policies about accepting ads to ensure they don’t face similar issues in the future. The Guardian will run an editorial this week apologizing to anyone who was offended by the ad, but the paper stands by its decision to publish it, he said.

“The advertiser was within their First Amendment rights to place the ad,” Sickels said.

Holloway said school employees shouldn’t try to make editorial or advertising decisions for The Guardian.

“We don’t want to be a Wright State PR publication,” he said. “We still want to be able to print what we want and report what’s there.”

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer. Contact Vicent by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.