Taking Offense


IT ALL BEGAN, as Dashiell Hammett liked to say, when this advertisement walked in. The advertisement belonged to Mr. David Chan, a photographer for Playboy magazine, and it asked interested Radcliffe students to see him about posing for an upcoming Playboy pictorial on "Women of the Ivy League." Mr. Chan wanted the advertisement to run in the Crimson yesterday, but it didn't.

The ad didn't run because a majority of editors at Thursday's staff meeting decided it was too offensive, and was grossly at odds with the papers stated policy of condemning sexism and the exploitation of women. Those editors made a specific editorial decision--one that will, in the upcoming years, probably have a considerable effect on The Crimson's relations with its advertisers, and its readers. Because that decision strikes at issues that are central to the paper's role in the Harvard community, and tie in with crucial considerations of journalistic philosophy and ethics, those of us who disagree with it feel obliged to present our objections clearly and openly. Although we cannot oblige Mr. Chan--we cannot run his advertisement--we feel that we should at least address ourselves to the considerable problems that his case has raised.

But the principle arguments against running the ad came from those who determined that it was simply too offensive to appear in the pages of The Crimson. Given the paper's commitment to the elimination of sexism in American thought, they argued, it had to be especially sensitive to this question; and this case certainly, was an example of gross insensitivity. Even worse, the argument went, the appearance of such an ad in The Crimson's advertising columns would prove us hypocrites: pious about condoning sexism in our editorials, we would nonetheless be proved not so pure when it came to taking money to condone such sins on the back page.

Those arguments are difficult to refute, not because they are themselves so airtight, but because it is so easy to rip through them and skid out of control into another, equally dangerous extreme. It is, for example, too simple to go all the way over the edge, to invoke the sanctity of a free speech and press, and to deny a newspaper's right to refuse any ads at all. There are those, after all, who hold that a newspaper has no right at all to deny access to its columns--to restrict the right of free speech, in its printed form--to anyone who will pay for it. But those people, thankfully, are few in number.

The free speech argument simply does not hold, precisely because access to a newspaper is anything but free. What one may say in advertisement is limited by the amount of money he or she can pay; no money, no speech. To build onto this argument an artificial superstructure, within which there is free speech for those who can afford it and none for those who cannot, is an exercise in truly creative logic. Simply put, the analogy does not make sense; a newspaper does not print everything it can, but instead sells its services --its paper and ink and column rules and headlines--to a number of customers. Like any merchant, it is wise to be selective about its customers.


For years, we have maintained that we will not accept certain advertisements that have been shown to contribute, in a specific way, to the oppression or exploitation of a defined group or class. That reasoning led us last year to refuse ads for the South Africa Krugerrand gold coin, and to reject advertisements placed by the South Africanbased de Beers diamond mining firm. ads, it was clear, enabled one group of people to perpetrate specific economic and political injustices against the blacks of- South Africa. For us to have accepted money for those ads would have given us, in effect, clients who would use our services to help continue a monstrous system of repression and exploitation. For much the same reason, three years ago we refused advertisements from the Arabian-American Oil Company, a firm that would not hire people who happened to be black, Jewish or female for the job openings it was advertising. Again, we continued our policy of refusing to be a party to an obvious injustice.

THOSE ARGUMENTS returned Thursday night, used to justify the rejection of an advertisement that would have asked Radcliffe students to accept money in return for posing for a glossy girlie magazine. Clearly, this was exploitation, the majority said; clearly, it made The Crimson a party to the continuation of a horrible system of sexist repression.

The analogy, however, is far from perfect.

To argue, as some of the majority did, that this advertisement was in the same category as those for Krugerrands or South African diamonds, is to ignore the key issue of choice. We refused to take Krugerrand or diamond ads because they contributed, in a direct way, to the maintenance of a clear injustice, built into the structure of the South African economy--a system from which repressed black workers cannot escape, and which continues to deprive them of tangible economic and political rights. It is difficult to see how this argument of repression can apply to an ad which presents a clear choice to mature, educated women--women who are completely within their rights to refuse the offer of a few hundred dollars should they find the price, in terms of personal degradation, too high. This is not relentless, structural exploitation; it is an offer, easily ignored. The argument that this newspaper should be presumed champion of the women of Radcliffe, protect them from having to make seamy choices, is a role that certainly has no parallel in previous cases of advertising policy.

And yet, the majority argued, to accept an ad from Playboy is to condone what Playboy stands for--the smirking, leering, pseudo-sophisticated brand of smuttiness that has, for 25 years, gone further to promote sexist thinking than any other publication. No matter how hard the minority might protest, no matter how fervently it might agree that the Playboy life-style and philosophy are degrading, it was saddled with the label of sexist. The connection between the acceptance of an ad and the endorsement of the advertiser's beliefs and public statements is too clear, the majority said.

Presumably, the majority next year could refuse to take ads from all those political candidates it does not endorse, as well as ads from the John Birch Society, the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party and numerous other exponents of unpopular philosophies. Having decided--contrary to all established principles of journalistic ethics--that sale of advertising space is tantamount to endorsement, it still might have a little difficulty separating the claims of free speech from those which are, supposedly, incorrect in their views. We hope that it might reconsider its stand in the near future, before reality intrudes--because these situations will continue to arise, no matter how fervently the majority might hope that this is a "special case."

MOST OF US in the minority held onto a different standard of advertising acceptability. As in the past, we saw the role of The Crimson as a forum for discussion. We still recognized that we could turn down certain advertisers--those whose actions we believed to be so integrated into a pattern of repression and injustice that we simply could not help them promote their goods.

But even in those cases--until Thursday --The Crimson would have allowed a de Beers Mining Company or an Aramco to take out a political advertisement, explaining its views without promoting its goods. Yet now, there is a new attitude--one which attacks an advertiser's philosophy rather than his actions, one which relies more on the vague notiom of "of- fensiveness" of the advertiser's thinking than on traditional criteria of the injustice of his or her deeds. It is the type of thinking that could easily be translated into a means of censoring unpopular beliefs, without having to face the rigorous test of proving a specific, correctable injustice. It is a dangerous way for a newspaper to think.

At base, the decision of the majority stemmed from a judgement that the Philosophy Playboy respresents, and the way in which it wished to treat Radcliffe students, are offensive. Surely there are no other criteria: the ad was not deceptive, nor libelous, nor dangerous to the social order; it did not directly promote the economic or political subversion of the would-be models, nor did it compel them to do anything against their wills. It simply was likely to offend many readers, as it offended a majority of the staff.

The Problem is that the label "offensive" is too easily applied. There is an enormous number of subjects--whether social theories, political views or religious beliefs, anything from Darwinism to disco--that could be branded "offensive" at any given time. For The Crimson to set itself up as an arbiter of taste, to impose our own standards of offensiveness on readers who are at least as intelligent and capable of choosing as we, is more than presumptuous. It also carries with it the seeds of capriciousness, the danger of unreasonably restraining the open discussion that it is our role to promote.

And so when that advertisement walked in this week, we should have accepted it. Not with open arms, of course--we hold no high opinion of Mr. David Chan, the seamy publication that pays his salary, nor the degrading line of work into which he has fallen. We simply believe in letting him say what he wants, when and where he wants to say it.