The Price of Paid Speech

Student newspapers debate the cost of controversial advertising

The ad, which argued against paying monetary reparations to the descendants of slaves, became front-page news when it provoked a rash of protests and newspaper thefts by student groups who called it racist and offensive. Entitled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea -- And Racist Too," the ad has forced student journalists to ask themselves what role advertising should play in their publications. As of early May, the ad had appeared in 28 college newspapers and had been rejected by 41.

This is not the first time a newspaper ad has ignited controversy on a college campus. Students have reacted strongly to advertising that offended or upset them for years, from diatribes arguing the Holocaust did not occur to offers of thousands of dollars to female college students willing to donate their eggs to infertile couples.

The decision to run controversial political ads is a matter of ethics but not of law. Political advertising is afforded even more First Amendment protection than ads for commercial products because it is selling an idea rather than a product or service. But those First Amendment rights belong to student newspaper staff members, who have the right to reject any ad they choose.

That does not make it any easier for editors trying to decide whether to publish a potentially controversial ad, however. And there does not seem to be much consensus among professionals or students on how that decision should be made.

When the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, led by author David Horowitz, decided to publicize its position on reparations for descendants of slaves, it had a limited budget. But by placing the advertisement in some of the nation's top college newspapers, the center got 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 they did nothing wrong. News stories, columns and editorials in professional publications from Newsweek to The Boston Globe recounted the protests and thefts, commented on the state of the First Amendment on college campuses and sometimes criticized the student editors who apologized for printing the ad.

Daniel Hernandez, editor of the University of California at Berkeley's Daily Californian, published a front-page apology for running the ad after students protested outside his office, destroyed or stole thousands of copies of the paper and demanded that the paper run 10 editorial columns, each refuting one of the 10 reasons against reparations. Hernandez said publishing the ad was a mistake because it had not been approved through the proper channels.

Protesters found the ad's arguments that blacks have already received reparations in the form of welfare and affirmative action programs and that blacks are indebted to the U.S. because it is the nation that set them 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 final approval over ads with political content, but she did not approve this ad. As a result, she apologized for its publication.

"It violated our policy," she said. "We have a responsibility to be mindful of what we print."

But other editors said student papers should not apologize for what they publish-even if such ads violate their own policies.

"That doesn't warrant an apology," said Julie Bosman, editor of The Badger Herald, one of two student newspapers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She suggested that editors publish a letter explaining the situation without apologizing.

The Badger Herald did not apologize to the nearly 100 students who arrived at its office and stole papers to protest the newspaper's decision to publish the ad. Bosman said The Herald staff refused to be intimidated by protesters and stood by its decision.

Although protesters called the ad racist, Bosman disagrees. She said The Herald 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 that she would print the ad again if faced with that decision.

She said her staff was "very, very lucky" to have witnessed what she called a "lesson in defending" the First Amendment.

Student editors at The Brown Daily Herald said they were defending the First Amendment when they refused to apologize to both students and faculty who protested their decision to print Horowitz's ad. Upset students stole almost the entire press run of the newspaper a few days after it published the ad, and 57 faculty members sent a letter to interim university President Sheila Blumstein expressing their unhappiness with the ad's publication. Editors decided to reprint 1,000 copies of the stolen issue, which they distributed from a centralized location themselves to ensure no copies would be stolen.

Despite the theft and protests, the ad was worth printing, said Nick Russo, general business manager of The Herald.

"I think everyone felt that it was the right thing to do because we were showing that our paper is a forum for free speech," Russo said. "We are not going to control the views that are expressed in the paper because that'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 of Memphis' student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, said newspaper staffs should formulate specific advertising guidelines and put them in writing. Included in those guidelines should be a procedure for dealing with ads that are controversial or not covered by the guidelines.

The question editors should ask themselves about a potentially contentious ad is "how is this going to affect the readers?" Spielberger said, adding that student editors may want to take the opportunity to re-examine their advertising policies when controversial ads are published at other schools.

"In the case of the Holocaust ad and this reparations ad those are so unique that I can't imagine that anyone would have thought that those things were coming," Spielberger said. "However, once something like the Holocaust ad comes along, that should have gotten wide enough notoriety that probably the guidelines for advertising for college newspapers should have been revisited."

Spielberger also noted that publishing politically charged ads sometimes means the message will reach more than the student newspaper's readership.

The purchasers of these ads "are looking for publicity," he said. "If these ads had been placed and there had been no controversy, then the placers of these ads would be highly disappointed. Typically what they're looking for is this additional free advertising."

Horowitz contended, however, that he did not expect the reaction the ad received but simply intended to provide another viewpoint on the issue of reparations.

"I never realized it was going to be so big," he said. "If that were true, I would have been famous 40 years ago."

Russo said the staff of the Brown newspaper evaluates each ad individually and 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 that it was offensive -- it wasn't hate speech, it didn't have any overtly racist statements in it," Russo said, adding that The Herald would not print advertising its staff deemed racist.

"If we received an ad from the KKK that was overtly racist, obviously we wouldn't place it in the paper," he said.

This case-by-case determination is exactly what Charles Davis, an at-large campus 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 used to beat you about the head," Davis said. "We have an untrammeled First Amendment right to run what we want to run."

According to Davis, who is also a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, there is no clear line that student editors can draw to determine what 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 not the way the world works in editorial or advertising content. I can see all 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 because there is no clear way to determine what is and is not appropriate, in part because of the high staff turnover rate.

"You don't want to confuse the community with a policy that might change from year to year," Wilson said.

Tom Rolnicki, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association and the Associated Collegiate Press, suggests students formulate an advertising policy that is flexible enough to deal with unexpected situations.

"There should be some leeway so an ad that may be unusual could be reviewed for acceptance even if it may not conform to existing guidelines," Rolnicki said. "The acceptance or rejection of an ad should be based on legal concerns foremost, and secondarily upon the standards of the student community as perceived by the student staff and the paper's own goals and mission."

Davis said he is uncomfortable with the idea of journalists apologizing for running something that ends up offending someone. He suggests newspapers promote open discussion and publish counter-commentary and opposing editorials, instead of apologizing.

But when Princeton University's student newspaper did just that with the anti-reparations ad, Horowitz refused to pay. In the same issue in which The Daily Princetonian published the ad, it also ran an editorial calling the ad racist and offensive and promising to donate the revenue from 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 unless the newspaper publicly apologized for publishing the editorial.

The Princetonian's editorial was defamatory, Horowitz said, adding that he is refusing to pay because as a public figure, he would not win a libel suit.

"We have libel laws that do not allow you to sue if you're a public figure -- or a quasi-public figure the way I am -- if someone calls you a racist or a moron. There's nothing I can do about it," he said.

Horowitz asserted that the real reason the Princetonian editors published the editorial was to protect themselves from future professional blacklisting.

"What they're really saying is that we would like to censor this, but we also want to become journalists someday, and we can see that the journalistic community 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 Horowitz for forcing us into this situation," he said, referring to criticism that followed some editors' decisions to apologize for running the ad.

In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, Daily Cal editor Hernandez 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 their office by the Report, but Davis said it is ridiculous for Horowitz to refuse to pay The Princetonian for publishing his ad just because the paper published an editorial he did not like.

"I think it's an utterly meritless argument," he said. "The issues are separate. One's about the editorial and the other's a business transaction in 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-page ad was not worth the problems that would likely follow.

"It's been our experience to simply shy away from controversy," said Jesse Friedman, managing editor of Brandeis University's student newspaper, The Justice. Friedman said the staff reached the decision not to publish Horowitz's ad with little discussion.

The Justice did run a Holocaust revisionist ad in December 1995 but now has a specific policy against publishing such advertisements, Friedman said. Students protested on both sides of the issue after the Holocaust ad ran.

"I'm glad we didn't run it," said Joe Nicholson, editor of the University of Washington's UW Daily, referring to the decision not to publish Horowitz'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 ads for fear of retaliation from readers.

"There are times when [running an ad] doesn't fit the mission of the publication at all," Davis said. "But a newspaper's mission, particularly on a college campus, is pretty darn broad. It's hard to argue there are some ads that work better for your readership and some that don't because your 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. In addition to publishing the anti-reparations ad, Pessin said The Chronicle printed an anti-abortion ad this year and a Holocaust revisionist ad in 1991.

But when Bradley Smith, who paid for many of the Holocaust revisionist ads, wanted to place one that claimed evidence of the Holocaust had been falsified, The Chronicle refused. The ad was not accurate and offered only unsubstantiated evidence, which is why the newspaper said no, Pessin said.

He said he believes the university setting should be open to alternative views 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 deciding what 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 than publishing a bad ad in the name of free expression."

View the text of David Horowitz's anti-reparations ad at:

reports, Spring 2001