Texas student paper adviser and advertising coordinator pull strip club ad after reader backlash

TEXAS — An advertisement for a strip club did not appear in a Texas university student newspaper Monday after professional staff members at the newspaper pulled the ad following backlash from readers and attention from media outlets.

The ad for a San Antonio strip club depicts silhouettes of women dancing and had already appeared twice in The University Star, the student-run newspaper at Texas State University, before being pulled by Bob Bajackson, director of Student Publications, and Kelsey Nuckolls, the advertising coordinator at the newspaper, despite criticism from the student editorial board.

“Pay your tuition! We are looking to hire entertainers & waitresses. Make $$$ while going to school! Work only 3 shifts a week!” the ad reads.

After the ad first appeared in the Jan. 25 paper, Nuckolls said the ad garnered a few negative calls from readers. In response, Bajackson reached out to Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, who confirmed the ad was OK to publish.

It wasn’t until the ad appeared in the Feb. 1 edition of the paper that it started to gain attention on social media and became a story for media outlets. Much of the attention came from social media, Bajackson said, where a picture of the ad posted on Twitter received hundreds of retweets and likes.

The ad received mixed reactions on Twitter, Nuckolls said, with some people commenting that they could not believe it was in the paper, while others said they did not see the problem with it. Kelsey Bradshaw, editor-in-chief of The University Star, tweeted Monday that she had received multiple emails from “readers upset about the Sugars ad who have referred to #TXST women as ‘precious.’”

The ad also attracted the attention of a number of local media outlets, including the TV stations from San Antonio and Austin, along with Telemundo, Bajackson said. The ad was supposed to run again on Feb. 8 and Feb. 15, but after the increased scrutiny, Bajackson and Nuckolls, who are both professional staff members, decided to pull the Feb. 8 ad.

Bajackson said he had no intent of stopping future publications of the ad, but wanted time to review and discuss the ad before publishing it again. Bajackson, who also serves as the newspaper’s adviser, said he also wanted time to communicate the reaction he got from the community to the newspaper’s student staff.

“In no way was I, quote unquote, trying to censor the ad,” Bajackson said.

Nuckolls said she has until later in the week to make a final call on whether to publish the ad on Monday. It’s unclear if the paper will then run the ad a fourth time, as previously planned.

Nuckolls said the reaction to the ad was surprising considering that in 2013, the paper had run print ads from the strip club featuring a woman in a risqué schoolgirl uniform without the same level of backlash.

“I’m still shocked,” she said. “I just don’t quite understand the backlash.”

A representative from the San Antonio strip club, Sugar’s, did not immediately return the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment.

In an editorial published Monday, the newspaper’s editorial board criticized the decision to pull the ad from the paper and argued against the negative response from readers. The board blasted readers’ criticism of the ad, arguing the complaints were rooted in “antiquated ideas of gender, expression and work.”

“Forcing people to resign themselves due to archaic beliefs about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the scope of mass communication does a disservice to the varied and nuanced populace The University Star serves,” the editorial said. “So long as an ad does not advocate violence, hatred or illegal activities, it should be fair game.”

In the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission, the Court established a four-part test that outlined when the government, or somebody acting on the state’s behalf, could regulate commercial speech.

In general, commercial speech that concerns illegal activity or is misleading can be regulated or prohibited by the government (or in this case, a public university) and is not protected by the First Amendment.

If the commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment, the Court concluded that the government interest in regulating the speech must be substantial and the regulation must directly promote the government interest and must be narrowly tailored to address that interest.

For example, school administrators have a substantial interest in insuring the orderly operation of schools so courts have consistently found that they can prevent student expression (including advertising) that creates a material and substantial disruption of school activities. However, the ban on advertisements must actually help achieve the school administrator’s substantial interest.

In 1990, a federal district court judge ruled that a St. Clair County Community College official in Michigan acted illegally when he told the student newspaper editor that she could no longer publish an advertisement for a Canadian strip club, where the drinking age was 19. The school claimed it banned the ad because it was degrading to women, promoted underage drinking and conflicted with the school’s educational mission and values.

The judge, using the Central Hudson test, found that although the school did have a substantial interest in protecting women from degradation and students from underage drinking, banning this advertisement was “not narrowly tailored” to serve those interests, and without advertising guidelines, the school officials were subjecting the student newspaper to “virtual unbridled regulatory authority.”

The University Star editorial board supports the ad since working at a strip club is legal and a legitimate employment choice for some women, opinions editor Brandon Sams said, adding that the ad is no different than other employment opportunity ads the paper has run in the past.

Yet looking back, Sams, who wrote the editorial, said it was important to have a conversation about the ad and what it stands for going forward.

“I think in retrospect the way he handled it was very professional,” Sams said of Bajackson’s decision to hold the ad.

The strip club ad, Nuckolls said, did not raise any serious concerns with the advertising staff members since similar ads had run in the past. Still, Bajackson said the paper is considering adding a student position to review ads in the future.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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