Speechless

14 Plympton

In mid-December, Brandeis University students were up in arms, furious at the school's student newspaper. The source of their rage? An advertisement from a Holocaust revisionist that the paper had published days earlier. The ad was titled "A Revisionist's View of the Holocaust Memorial Museum," and it questioned the existence of the gas chambers in World War II concentration camps.

The Brandeis incident was impressively timed, what with the recent opening of the groundbreaking memorial museum in Washington D.C., and the release of Steven Spielberg's powerful film, Schindler's List. Germany's World War II horrors have reached the forefront of the national consciousness with unusual intensity; last week, a Nightline reporter flippantly (and callously) referred to 1993 as "The Year of the Holocaust."

But 1993 is not the first year Bradley R. Smith chose to challenge the existence of the Holocaust. Smith, the director of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, is the source of the Brandeis ad. He's been the source, in fact, of a number of advertisements questioning the authenticity of stories about the Holocaust and of the Holocaust itself. In the past few years, he's sent those ads to college newspapers across the country--including The Crimson. We received a full-page advertisement from Smith in 1991. There was no campus furor here; we didn't run the ad.

Idon't mean to be self-congratulatory, although I believe The Crimson made the right decision two years ago. But I think it's important to explain the thought processes that go into a newspaper's consideration of a controversial ad. The Crimson didn't make its decision without serious, often heated debate.

The staff of the Brandeis Justice surely engaged in similar discussions in December. So did the staffs of the Duke University Chronicle and the University of Pennsylvania's Daily Pennsylvanian. Both college papers received the same revisionist ad The Crimson did two years ago. At that time, both wound up running the ad.

All three of these college papers published the Bradley Smith ad on the same grounds: protection of free speech. That was the argument, too, of Brandeis students who supported the ad's publication. "Students pontificated...saying that Bradley Smith has no right to free speech," one student said at a Brandeis rally several weeks ago. But the free-speech rationalization for running a hateful ad belies a confusion about a newspaper's role as a public forum, versus its use of advertising space.

The truth is, refusing to run an ad has nothing to do with promoting freedom of expression. A newspaper is not an open forum, like a street corner or an open kiosk. It's a privately owned organization that sells its space. An advertisement, then, represents a business transaction--not a public statement. And any private company can refuse to engage in a business transaction, provided it isn't engaging in systematic discrimination. That's why the government cannot ban a book, but a publishing company can refuse to publish the book.

Call it discrimination, call it quashing someone else's speech, and you're calling it wrong. Refusing to run an ad is merely refusing to sell a commodity. It's not refuting the right to hold an opinion, or to try to seek other venues for expressing that opinion.

Atangent to the freedom of expression argument is the speech-marketplace argument. When The Crimson, The Chronicle, the Daily Pennsylvanian, and other college newspapers received the Holocaust ad in 1991, The Washington Post ran a staff editorial contending that college newspapers should have published the ad to ensure that all views were heard. If you let every view out in the open, the Post wrote, the arguments that are flawed, or poorly thought out, will wind up discredited.

The Post's argument for running the ad might be viable if Holocaust revisionism were indeed a "view." But a contradiction of fact isn't an opinion, it's a mistake. People who think the world is flat don't just disagree with the rest of the world; they're wrong.

A number of college newspapers rejected the Holocaust ad for that reason: The ad was untruthful. Indeed, that was part of the rationale Crimson editors used when deciding not to run the ad. But that reasoning, we learned, can lead to trouble. When Bradley Smith heard the college newspaper staffs' we-won't-run-lies arguments, he tried to trip up the students with their own logic. He sent out a second ad, this one more limited in subject and more innocuous in tone. It suggested that people rethink the Holocaust, but didn't refute facts outright.

The letter that Smith sent accompanying this second ad amounted to a taunt: You didn't run my last ad because you said it contained lies. This ad contains only the truth. Now you have no choice but to run it.

We didn't run the second ad, either. But it made us think a little more about why we refused to publish the first one. It wasn't just the ad's written content; it was also the message behind the content. Bradley Smith's "difference of opinion" is particularly odious. And the main reason The Crimson decided against running the ad was the fact that it was hateful. We didn't want to sell our space to print a hateful message, regardless of its exact wording.

Given that a newspaper is able to make a decision about every advertisement, on what grounds should we determine ads acceptable or unacceptable? Clearly, each newspaper sets its own standards, based on some combination of content and source. Would The Crimson run an ad that said only "Have a Nice Day," if the advertiser were the Ku Klux Klan? Would we run a hateful ad from an innocuous organization?

Ultimately, it's a matter (as most things are) of drawing a line. As some Crimson editors argued, you can find something wrong with just about any company. You can offend somebody somewhere with just about any statement.

And every time a controversial ad arises, we find ourselves in the midst of a serious debate. Last fall, we argued over an ad promoting a Playboy magazine writing contest; we ended up running it. It is necessary to tackle each ad individually, weighing its content, its source, and its underlying message.

The decision to review ads often pits a newspaper's editorial and business sides against each other. Each Holocaust ad would have given the Crimson more than 1,000 much-needed dollars. But the division isn't always the same, with business aching to run the ad and editorial aching to quash it. Long ago on my high school paper, the sides were switched.

I attended a public school in a Washington, D.C. Suburb. When I was a senior, our newspaper staff debated an advertisement from the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League: SMYAL. Like Bradley Smith, SMYAL widely distributed its message; offering an ad to nearly every school paper in the Washington area. Unlike Bradley Smith, SMYAL wasn't seeking to refute the truth. The group was a counseling service for gay, bisexual and lesbian teenagers.

Some high school newspaper staffs argued fiercely over the ad; business managers feared that the subject matter would scare away other advertisers, or potential advertisers. Our staff ended up running the ad. Again, I believe it was the right decision; but in retrospect, I'm not sure we made it for the right reasons. I recall arguing at the time that "they sent us the money, so we'll print the ad." I now realize it's a lot more complicated than that.