An advertisement for pizza in a campus publication is unexceptional. But an ad espousing a particular political opinion almost instantaneously provokes controversy, especially when that opinion runs counter to the oft-assumed liberal credentials of the college press corps. To censor ads that contain political content is seemingly to negate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but to publish such ads is seemingly to implicitly endorse the views contained therein. For a radical-turned-reactionary looking to force the hand of college newspaper editors nationwide, it has all the makings of a brilliantly spun Catch-22: Publish and perish in the court of public opinion, or cut the ad and capitulate to the pretense that the press has a moral obligation to shield its readers from potentially inflammatory material.
Such was the devious master plan behind David Horowitz’s recent attempt to place an ad entitled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks?and Racist Too” in college newspapers. With this one full-page ad, Horowitz issued college journalists a hefty challenge: Just how liberal are you? Too many proved themselves deficient.
The text of Horowitz’s ad is purposely incendiary. He created a liberal litmus test of sorts, designed almost solely to ply the bastion of academic journalism with an ideological conundrum. This alone, however, does not give editors sufficient grounds upon which to reject the advertisement. And, however distasteful, the controversial content of the ad doesn’t either.
Journalistic publications are divided into two wholly distinct operations, the publication side (which supplies the copy and content of the paper) and the business side (which is responsible for the fiscal solvency of the paper). These two sides of the newspaper production process operate on similar ethical principles, but they do so independently of one another, ideologically. For example, the advertising manager, to the same extent as the news editor, has a responsibility to not print blatantly false statements or libelous content. However, there is an important caveat inherent in the separation of business and production.
While the printed content generated by staff members and other contributors to a news publication is generally reflective of the opinions and political leanings of the staff, the advertising content is not. The college newspaper staff that elects to run a pizza parlor ad is not proclaiming an unqualified preference for one restaurant’s pie over another. And the staff that chooses to allow Horowitz to place his ad in their publication is likewise not condoning his opinion. The charge of “guilt by association” is simply invalid when publications take such painstaking precautions against finding themselves in a position where the advertisements implicitly reflect on the paper. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that due to publication requirements stipulated by the University, the Voice is unable to accept ads for abortion clinics, contraceptives or sperm and egg donors, in addition to companies that sell pre-written term papers.)
Of central importance to this discussion is the distinction between journalistic ethics and individual moral values. Journalistic ethics dictate that any relevant speech that is not patently false, libelous or other types unprotected by the Constitution be given equal consideration in publication decisions. Newspapers, however, are restricted by space constraints, thus causing a certain amount of selection to occur (hence the standard disclaimer that papers reserve the right to edit for space). But while the individual ethical values of editors may be reflected in their choice of topics, the advertising content of a publication that presumes to cover news responsibly never should. Personal morality in no way factors into the constitutional definition of free speech, nor should it influence advertising standards.
Free speech has some unpleasant, and even ugly, consequences. But, as journalists in particular are acutely aware, the alternative is much, much worse. The Voice unequivocally opposes Mr. Horowitz’s opinion, but we unreservedly support his right to voice it.