Georgia Tech battles advertiser, AG's office
GEORGIA — A fickle advertiser at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) pursued a lengthy battle with the student newspaper over the paper’s right to refuse their ad, and then withdrew the ad before it ran.
In October 1995, around the same time as National Coming Out Day, a day commemorating gay/lesbian/bisexual rights, the Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) submitted an ad to Georgia Tech’s paper, The Technique, as part of its national “Every Student’s Choice” campaign. The ad featured a photo of a young man and a caption identifying him as “a former homosexual, male prostitute and female impersonator.”
Next to the photo, a quote listed all of the derogatory names the man claimed he had been called growing up and his mistaken belief that he was born gay. Below the quote, a paragraph read “There is another way out” and a toll free number for an organization called “Every Student’s Choice.”
A similar ad had a woman’s picture with the same toll free number.
The editorial board of The Technique voted unanimously to reject the ads because the students felt they were potentially harmful and offensive to the university community. In a written statement, Stephanie Goff, editor of the paper at the time, explained the rejection, saying, “It was not just the emphasized derogatory slang, but the subtleties of the text and its derisive messages about homosexuality are what we find truly offensive.”
David Skinner, news editor of The Technique, said the editorial board has standards for refusing certain kinds of advertising, including ads for the Ku Klux Klan, Holocaust revisionists and dating services. He said the board members initially had no idea they had the right to refuse advertising, so they issued a justification for refusing CCC’s ad.
Soon after, the CCC pursued legal action to try to force the paper to run the ads, and submitted their case to the state attorney general, Michael Bowers, for review.
Similar to other cases in which advertisers have attempted to legally force a student newspaper to accept their advertising, CCC claimed that the paper’s decision to reject the ads was made not by the students, but by the administration. The administration’s alleged involvement amounted to state censorship of speech, CCC claimed, because administrators are state agents.
Students at The Technique have consistently denied that the administration had anything to do with their decision to reject the ads. Bowers, quoting a dissenting opinion in a similar case, supported CCC’s view that the paper is a state agency and may not reject advertising on the basis of its content.
Bower’s use of the dissenting opinion is questionable, and some legal experts have said it was just plain wrong. James Tidwell, attorney and journalism professor at Eastern Illinois University, called the opinion “ridiculous” and said their courts do not consider students state actors.
“If a student makes a decision about content, the traditional idea applies that the paper can print whatever it wants to,” he said. “The attorney general is completely wrong…He’s ignoring every precedent that’s ever been set.”
Despite the questionable nature of Bower’s opinion, the editorial board reluctantly decided to accept one of the ads to run in the April 19 edition of the paper in an effort to avoid further controversy.
Shortly before the ad was to run, however, CCC inexplicably pulled it from the paper. Skinner said the CCC gave no reason for pulling the ad, and has made no efforts since to run another one.
The controversy attracted the attention of the entire university community, Skinner said. Someone even posted flyers around campus with reduced copies of the ads that read, “The ad The Technique refused to run.” He said letters and phone calls flooded the newspaper offices for weeks after the ad was initially rejected.
He said he is not sure whether CCC will try to run the ads next year, but emphasized that “everybody in the gay community knows about” the ad anyway.
Fall 1996, reports