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

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

From Harvard University to The University of Wisconsin, college newspapers throughout the country have faced harsh criticism for both printing and refusing to print controversial advertisements. Running offensive advertisements can cause a newspaper to come under attack for what 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 they face complaints from the advertisers.

For student journalists, once a controversial ad is submitted, it often seems there is no right answer.

After it declined to distribute a 12-page anti-abortion insert with its paper, University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh's The Advance-Titan faced public criticism from Pro-Life Wisconsin, the organization that submitted the ad. The full-color insert, a product of Human Life Alliance, includes stories of people who regretted obtaining abortions and information about fetal development and potential health risks.

Editor-in-Chief Andrew Munger decided not to include the insert after discussing it with both the advertising manager and the paper's adviser.

While The Advance-Titan does run political advertisements, Munger said this insert, which did not offer any service and was intended only to persuade, seemed too likely to lead to an argument through advertisements.

"I didn't want to have two competing sides arguing through advertisements," he said. "It's not the correct venue (for debate)." Munger said he had put a stop to an abortion debate on the Advance-Titan's opinion page last year.

Pro-Life Wisconsin spokeswoman Virginia Zignego accused the newspaper of censorship, and said the rejection showed the students' bias.

"Part of the American tradition is getting both sides of the argument, and then supposedly you have the intelligence to make your own decision," she said, explaining while she thinks student newspapers do have a right to reject advertising, they should not do it to censor ideas.

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

"We know what they want, and we're not going to give it to them," Munger said, explaining a reluctance to engage with Pro-Life Wisconsin and further the controversy.

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

Editor-in-Chief Eric Pringle said he met with the advertising manager, business manager and assistant editor about the insert.

"We used a sort of roundtable discussion to determine the pros and cons of running the insert," he said. "Throughout this process, we made sure that the discussion of the amount of money we would receive from running the insert was not a factor."

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

"Although we didn't necessarily need to warn (students) that some controversial ads may be appearing in future issues of the Voice, we felt it was a good idea to keep them informed of this decision and let them know that their campus newspaper doesn't discriminate against certain advertisers because they may have different beliefs," Pringle said.

In their discussions, Pringle and the other editors relied on the Student Voice's advertising policy as part of the rationale for the decision and said it would guide ad decisions in the future.

The ad policy that was so influential in the Student Voice's decision, though, was not created until after the paper was faced with deciding whether to run the anti-abortion insert and an ad for a cigar shop.

"Before this semester, the Student Voice did not have an advertising policy --it was just kind of a pick-and-choose basis," Pringle said.

"This was a little shocking to me."

The Student Voice's newly crafted ad policy gives editors "the right to refuse any advertisement in the case of possible liability or offensive content." It mentions ads that are discriminatory or that violate the law as ones that will be rejected.

"Our goal was to keep it broad in terms of saying what kind of advertising we will and will not accept, because exceptions always occur," Pringle said.

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

"With a policy, it makes it much easier to make decisions, as we now have some established guidelines to aid us in --and help back up --our decisions," he said.

Bitsy Faulk, president of the executive board of College Newspaper Business and Advertising Managers, called advertising policies "critical" for student newspapers.

She said that these policies not only guide students when making their decisions, they can also protect them from claims 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 a statement that makes clear the paper's right to refuse and descriptions of types of advertisements that would be rejected under the policy. These often include ads that are libelous, offensive or discriminatory.

"(A policy) should be straightforward enough to let advertisers know what's okay but never so restrictive that it limits the students' ability to reject any ad," said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.

He said policies should give student newspapers the right to reject ads for any reason. Using words like "offensive" or "controversial" leaves room for advertisers to argue that their ads do not meet those qualifications.At Bucknell University, a policy's wording caused the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to question why student newspaper The Bucknellian rejected its ad.

The paper's policy states: "The Editorial Board of The Bucknellian reserves the right to deny advertisements if offensive, illegal, or in bad taste."

"We didn't see anything offensive, illegal or in bad taste about the ad," said Adam Kissel, director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program. The advertisement announced that Bucknell had made FIRE's list of schools that allow the least amount of freedom on campus, naming Dean of Students Gerald Commerford as among the administrators who had stifled student speech by shutting down events put on by the Bucknell University Conservatives Club. The ad included a picture of a "stimulus dollar" with President Barack Obama's face, originally handed out by that club.

Kissel said he didn't understand why independent student newspapers would choose to put restrictions on advertising.

"An independent newspaper has the right to make decisions about commercial versus noncommercial speech in a way that a government entity doesn't," he said, adding, "I think it's an interesting question why a student newspaper would want to be more restrictive than the First Amendment allows."

Lenore Flower, editor-in-chief of The Bucknellian, said she declined to run FIRE's ad because she objected to Commerford being singled out for criticism as possibly libelous and something that was better suited to the opinion page. She said she suggested that the group either change the wording of its advertisement or write a letter to the editor instead.

After learning that decision, Kissel contested the idea that the ad could be libelous and pointed out that the paper's reasons for rejection did not match up with its advertising policy.

While he said independent student newspapers should and do have the right to reject any advertisements, Kissel said students should consider how rejections might affect the public's perception of them.

"The associated outcome is that the public knows that, if certain kinds of content are rejected, then the paper's objectivity is perhaps not as solid as if it accepts all ads," he said.

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

"I basically look at it from the perspective of, if I opened up this newspaper, if I wasn't involved in it and I saw this ad, would I think less of the newspaper as a result of the ad?" she said. "And if the answer is yes, I refuse to run the ad."

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

Although independent and public-school student newspapers can be legally responsible if ads are libelous, obscene or an invasion of someone's privacy, they are allowed to print any advertisements they choose, Goldstein said.

"Offensive speech is exactly what the First Amendment is supposed to protect," he said.

While public school officials are barred from engaging in censorship or viewpoint discrimination, Goldstein said student editors are not obliged to print any advertisement and rejecting an ad is not a violation of the advertiser's First Amendment rights.

After being criticized for running an all-text ad asking suggesting the Germans never used gas chambers during the Holocaust, The Harvard Crimson defended its legal right to print whatever its editors choose.

That right must be balanced, though, with careful deliberation when a controversial advertisement is involved, according to an editorial in which The Crimson apologized for the ad, attributing its publication to a miscommunication that occurred during the transition from summer to the new school year.

"Although newspapers command the right to publish whatever they see fit --a right that should not be infringed upon --it remains a journalistic responsibility to carefully evaluate what is actually appropriate to print," it said.

Goldstein said student editors may reject ads for any reason, even an ideological one, because a student newspaper is supposed to represent the students.

"If the students are really opposed to an issue, then they should reject that ad," he said.

reports, Winter 2009-10