National Ad Stirs Ethical Questions

Published: 1999-12-07

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It seemed as if an all-out war had broken out on campus two years ago.

Faculty members and students condemned The Review for running a column and an ad by a known Holocaust revisionist on December 5, 1997, and the paper in turn defended itself.

But what happened at Delaware was really only a battle in a bigger war—a war masterminded by Bradley R. Smith and his Committee For Open Debate on the Holocaust.

It is a broad-ranging cultural and religious war that inspires bitter recriminations on all sides, and during the 1990s the battleground has often been the sensitized terrain of college newspapers.

It is also a war that centers around important questions raised in recent years concerning the limits of hate speech and the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and press in America.

When The Review ran materials spewing his controversial beliefs, a stormy debate ensued - a carbon copy of what has happened on hundreds of campuses across the country since Smith began his “Campus Project.”

Since 1991, it is estimated that he has placed about 210 ads at about 190 college newspapers. Considering he sends out around 250 ads each year, only a few make it into the newspapers.

But the ones that do cause quite a stir.

The most recent round came when Hofstra University’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, printed Smith’s 24-page insert filled with writings which have been widely denounced as Holocaust denial material.

In a major coup for Smith (second only to the printing of his ad at the Jewish-sponsored Brandeis University in 1994), the protests heated up over the insert, luring national coverage from all the major television networks along with the New York Times to the university.

Shawna VanNess, the editor of the paper, said The Chronicle decided to run the insert to expose Smith’s beliefs.

“It is scary the number of people who don’t know there are people like him out there,” she said. “It has been weeks since we printed it and people are still talking about it.

“Whether they agree with our decision or not, everyone knows who Bradley R. Smith is now.”

Smith offered the inserts to 30 universities but Hofstra is the only university that took him up on the offer so far.

And judging from the attacks on VanNess, there may not be another editor willing to print it.

She said she has been called an anti-Semite and picked apart by angered students and faculty on Hofstra’s campus.

In a rare telephone interview, Smith said the editors who choose to run his materials are standing up to the social norm and are always criticized heavily.

“The editor is always hung out to dry in public,” he said, “and is condemned for having done what he or she thinks is in the best interest of the free press.”

And while VanNess is in the minority when it comes to deciding to print the insert, she does have some defenders.

Paul McMasters, the First Amendment specialist for the Freedom Forum in Washington D.C., said he gets queasy when groups start telling newspapers what they can and cannot run.

McMasters said Smith has realized he can count on college officials to raise the profile of his views “far beyond what they are probably worth.”

“I think if I was a college official I would be a little embarrassed to be so predictable,”

“The school newspaper is a public forum established to convey information to the campus community,” he said, “and accepting an ad doesn’t necessarily endorse its content, whether it is for a bottle of beer or a provocative piece of historical revisionism.”

He said it is totally legitimate for an editor to print this kind of information in context so people can judge it for themselves.

But there are many that disagree with him, including Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of 1993’s “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Growth and Memory.”

She said any college newspaper deciding to run Smith’s materials is making a critical mistake.

“I don’t think they would run an ad that states that the Earth is flat or that whites should kill blacks,” she said. “I also don’t think they would run an ad by the Ku Klux Klan, but somehow they fail to notice this is prejudice and anti-Semitism.” Lipstadt, a religion professor at Emory University, maintains that those who claim this is a case about freedom of speech are missing the point.

“It is simply not about freedom of speech,” she said. “Nobody said the newspapers cannot print it - it is an issue of journalistic responsibility.” While the debate rages on over the ads, some also dispute the effectiveness of the protests over the ads.

McMasters said Smith has realized he can count on college officials to raise the profile of his views “far beyond what they are probably worth.”

“I think if I was a college official I would be a little embarrassed to be so predictable,” he said. “College officials and other groups raise the profile of these things simply by objecting to them or reacting to them rather strenuously.”

However, Jeffery Ross, director of campus affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, said the argument of “If you ignore it, it will go away” is just plain wrong.

“Any act of terrorism depends on communication for its effectiveness,” he said. “So if there is a terrorist bombing and it gets in the headlines, then it has the effect of terrorizing people.

“When you report on something that does harm, you are spreading the harm, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respond to it.”

Smith said he believes the protests are merely a ploy to criticize the newspapers while ignoring his opinion.

“As I believe the University of Delaware affair was, I think the Hofstra affair is really emblematic of what happens,” he said. “They ran a 24-page advertisement of mine with close to 20,000 words and no one at Hofstra has referenced anything that is in the ad.

“The president, the faculty, Hillel [Jewish student group] and the ADL have all referenced nothing, but condemned it all.”

The executive director of university relations at Hofstra, Michael DeLuise, made his frustration at Smith clear.

“I’m angry that a man who only spends a few hundred dollars can magically get thousands of dollars of free press when his stupid, insensitive ideas are spread all over college newspapers,” he said. “To let him grandstand all over the media is ridiculous.”

One thing Smith has clearly done with his ads is to create a to-print-or-not-to-print debate within the ranks of the college media elite.

David Basler, the editor of the Daily Kent Stater at Kent State University, has printed Smith’s ads before and said he would do so again.

While Basler said he doesn’t agree with Smiths opinion, he added that he believes Smith has a right to voice his beliefs in the newspaper.

“I believe in his right of freedom of speech just like I would hope he would believe in mine,” he said. “Most of the people who complain are of the opinion that, Smith doesn’t have the right to voice his opinion, but I do.

“That is not right. If you want people to listen to your opinion, you have to be willing to listen to peoples; opinions whether you agree with them or not.”

Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Press law Center, said his organization, which dispenses free legal advice to student editors, supports newspapers that run the ads as long as the decision was well informed.

“What most student newspapers say is it’s a First Amendment issue,” he said, “based on their belief that we as a news organization have a right to run all kinds of information for readers and to let them decide if it is good or bad, worthy or not.

“We would be in a lot of trouble if newspapers only ran ads they believed in, from abortion to political candidates.”

Yet many editors at college newspapers disagree. Evan Thies, news editor at the Daily Orange at Syracuse University, said the freedom of speech shield pertains to pamphlets and newsletters, but stops at the newsroom door.

“Newspaper editors are gatekeepers—we do not print in whole what people want us to and will not be held hostage by their ideas,” he said. “Newspapers are not simply a bulletin board.

“Newspapers strive to reflect what the public is saying, but it is not our duty to ensure every person gets in the newspaper.”

Thies said the Daily Orange received Smith’s insert earlier this semester and refused to print it.

“Last year, our editor in chief got the ad and discussed it with members of the staff and we determined that we do not print lies,” he said. “While we do print material some people may find offensive, whether it be tobacco or adult advertising, none of those things are based on lies—and it is obvious that he is lying.”

The editor in chief of The Signal at Georgia State University, Brad Pilcher, also said he is in the business of printing the truth over lies.

“It is a newspaper’s obligation to publish the truth for its readers,” he said. “This is its purpose, and this ad is intentionally misleading.”

But Kent State’s Basler said editors need to let their readers make their own decisions on what are legitimate opinions.

He said any person with a “head on their shoulders” will read Smith’s ads and realize his beliefs are bogus.

“Everybody knows that the Earth is round,” he said, “and if I put an ad in the paper saying the Earth is flat, well that is my right to believe that, but it isn’t true.”

Thies sees the situation in a different light. He said Smith is targeting college editors who like to think of themselves as open-minded.

“He is preying on editors like myself who consider themselves freedom of information purists and using their virtuous beliefs against them,” he said. “On one hand, you want your newspaper to be as open to its community as possible, but on the other hand you know you have to have a commitment to the truth.”

Katherine Stroup, editor of The Chronicle at Duke University where Smith’s ad ran in 1991, said his ad should be run in the newspaper, but only with accompanying editorials and articles explaining who he is.

However, She said rejecting the ad and only printing articles about him is just as bad as running the ad without accompanying materials.

“If you only let Smith speak in boundaries you approve of, you are in danger of consolidating power,” she said. “Newspapers have a responsibility to place the ad, but in context with editorials and stories.

“This way you are still giving him the opportunity to use his voice but you’re placing it all in context.” Stroup said she will run his ad again if given the opportunity, but this time it will be “with complete coverage that looks both at the message and the messenger.”

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Melissa Hankins , Ryan Cormier
Title: National Ad Stirs Ethical Questions
Sources: The Review. University of Delaware December 7, 1999
Published: 1999-12-07
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 22, 2015, 12:20 p.m.
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