It’s a beautiful spring afternoon on the University of Wisconsin campus.
You’re done with classes and don’t want to have anything to do with homework. After all, that 20-page research paper due in three days can always wait a little longer.
So you walk down Library Mall, watch students hang out, sip some coffee and nap on the grass.
As you approach Lake Street, there is a middle-aged man holding a sign and a Bible. He’s yelling, “Repent, repent!” and “Homosexuality is an abomination!”
You listen to the man and think, “What a country. I can’t believe people have the right to say whatever they want, despite my feelings about the message, all because our Constitution protects freedom of speech so amply.”
You don’t agree with what the man is saying. In fact, you despise his flawed rhetoric and skewed logic. Regardless, you appreciate his right to say it. And for the sake of freedom of speech, you go into the nearest hate-speech store and buy a shirt that says, “God hates fags.”
That’s because you understand the fine line between allowing freedom of speech and supporting hateful rhetoric, just as well as you understand the difference between letting the marketplace of ideas develop freely and giving it a push by handing hate mongers a pedestal and a megaphone.
That’s what The Badger Herald didn’t take into account when the newspaper’s leadership allowed an advertisement by a Holocaust denier to run on its website, which usually gets between 10,000 and 15,000 viewers daily.
I applaud Editor in Chief Jason Smathers’ attempt to promote free speech and generate a meaningful conversation.
There was, however, no need for the conversation. The Holocaust is undeniable. There is no sane person arguing it didn’t exist, or arguing whether it was 6 million people killed, 600,000 or maybe 60,000.
To say that accepting an advertisement by a Holocaust denier would warn naive members of the UW community about the terrible, terrible things that some people say out there was a nice try, but missed the point entirely.
The point is that freedom of speech and a free press are the basis upon which a free and democratic nation is built, but there is nothing that says a newspaper has to publish lies — even in the form of a paid advertisement.
The Herald had every right to deny the advertisement on the basis of inaccuracy, and the newspaper’s leadership should have done so without thinking twice.
If Bradley Smith, the Holocaust denier who placed the ad, somehow managed to get accepted at UW and decided to work for The Badger Herald, would this newspaper allow him to write a Holocaust denial in its opinion pages? I’m willing to bet not.
Is that censorship? No. It’s called journalistic integrity, ethics and an obligation every news source has to publish truthful information.
Along the same lines, denying an untruthful advertisement is not censorship but rather a newspaper’s reserved right to not publish blatant lies.
UW-Madison professor Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the university, puts it this way:
“As journalists, we are committed to challenging views, to promoting truth and accuracy and fairness,” Ward said. “And this goes against that.
“I would defend the legal right of the paper to [run the ad], but I think it’s regrettable that it was thought that somehow this ad had to be put there.”
Ward said the current controversy gives The Herald an opportune moment to review its advertising policies. “One of the things that has to be asked here, is: Does this set a precedent for the future?” the professor added.
Smathers said a review is ongoing. As a result of the recent controversy and a previous one with anti-Semitic comments posted online, the newspaper is reviewing its online commenting and advertising policies.
A committee chaired by Smathers will review online commenting policies while a committee chaired by Advertising Director Michelle Essma will review the newspaper’s advertising policies.
“The one thing that has really upset me about this entire controversy is people who claim that we did this because we wanted controversy,” Smathers said. “You could’ve claimed that with the boycott of the Nitty, and you might have had a point. This isn’t the sort of controversy I want.
“For people to assume that I either did this lightly or without much thought, or that we did it because we thought it would be a good talking issue, no. It came from a lot of conversations and thinking.”
The conclusion, Smathers said, was to confront untruthful hate speech with intelligent, factually based discourse expected at Wisconsin’s flagship university.
Students interested in such discourse are invited to a panel discussion entitled “Journalism, Ethics and Sensitivity,” hosted by the Offices of the Dean of Students and UW Hillel.
The panel will take place Thursday, 4 to 6 p.m. at 272 Bascom Hall, hosted by Dean of Students Lori Berquam. Panelists expected include Ward and journalism professors Lewis Friedland and Katy Culver; political science professor Howard Schweber; and Smathers and Daily Cardinal Editor in Chief Charles Brace.
Chancellor Biddy Martin is also expected to attend.
To The Badger Herald’s online content staff. Never before has the Herald enjoyed such a plethora of multimedia content. Keep it up, folks.
This week’s public editor ASO goes to the animated image of Mayor Dave Cieslewicz during Tuesday night’s Madison City Council meeting. The Harry Potter references were amusing at first (“Ahh has The Badger Herald turned into the Daily Prophet!?” one reader wrote), but the move was highly inappropriate and juvenile.
It’s hard to take a publication seriously that way.
Pedro Oliveira Jr. is a former news editor of The Badger Herald. He is currently a news reporter at The Janesville Gazette. Please send complaints and comments on Herald coverage to [email protected] All complaints will be investigated by the public editor.