Sunday, March 15, 2009

Student newspapers debate the cost of controversial advertising

This article originally published by The Student Press Law Center came across my desk today via a Google alert. While it was not something I had specifically Googled, it does contain relevant arguments. You can find the full article here.

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The Price of Paid Speech

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.

[….]

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."

[….]

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.

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."

[….]

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.

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.

[….]

"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 [no evidence for inaccurate or unsubstantiated evidence in my ad is reported by The Student Press Law Center], 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."

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