Over the last few weeks, we’ve wrestled both ethically and emotionally with our decision not to remove Bradley Smith’s Holocaust denial advertisement on our website. The advertisement, as this paper has stated repeatedly, is an affront to history, an insult to this campus’ intelligence and a veiled attack on the Jewish students who attend the University of Wisconsin. Given the nature of Smith’s website and its borderline content, we’ve debated in meeting after meeting whether to take the advertisement down.
We have decided to leave the advertisement up for the duration of its term, which will end on March 17. This paper defended the continued run of this advertisement on the grounds that this campus was strong enough and educated enough to expose such lies and do more damage to them than they could do to us. And this campus proved us right. The Holocaust deniers certainly made their presence obvious on our comment boards, but the student body was ready to combat their message and use the tools Chancellor Biddy Martin and the UW community has armed them with: The truth. To that degree, UW students proved us right — our community was rational enough to rebuke this alternative reality as it crept out of its extremist corners and into the light of day.
However, as this ordeal comes to an end, we want to make a few things clear.
This paper made many mistakes. First, we had no formal oversight of the online advertisements, which allowed the advertisement to make it onto our website in the first place without the appropriate approval from Herald leaders. We were not aware of the Holocaust denial advertisement until five full days after it made it onto our website.
Secondly, the anti-Semitic comments that made it onto our comment boards did so first because of an unmoderated system, and also following the institution of a moderation system because of mistakes and a lack of clear criteria for our editors. We acknowledge a lack of previously established processes to prevent these comments from being published and apologize for the harm they have done. This paper committed itself to keeping these hateful comments off of the stories and we’ve failed twice to do that. We will not let such a grave error occur again.
What’s more, however, we even more strongly regret the harm done to the Jewish community as a result of the last month. The students who attended the forum last Thursday and the Holocaust Awareness rally last Wednesday spoke not just of an offense or pain to Jewish students on this campus, but also of the specter of threats against them. In making our original decision to keep the ad, we did not fully recognize the virulence of anti-Semitism still present today and how that could cause our students not only offense, but fear. We now realize the degree to which this ad and the comments have made Jewish members of our community feel vulnerable on this campus.
We never want another student to feel he or she can’t enroll at this university because they feel it isn’t safe or that they aren’t respected. We want to make sure the environment is inviting to all students and will certainly make it our priority in the future to take the first step and reach out to those students who feel slighted as a result of something on our website or in our paper.
We are currently crafting new advertising and commenting policies to ensure the Herald is a part of a more fruitful dialogue on this campus. Two committees, chaired by Herald veterans, are reviewing our policies, and we promise to have something concrete in place for both advertisements and comments by the end of the academic year. To ensure that in the interim these mistakes do not repeat themselves, we’re taking some temporary steps.
First, Bradley Smith’s ad, at the end of its run, will not be renewed.
Second, online advertisements will be subject to approval by the Advertising Director before being posted to our website.
Third, our comments will now be subject to a few more limitations: Comments that Herald editors do not deem to be germane to the conversation or which make gratuitous personal attacks may be deleted. Furthermore, our editors will be trained on these standards and taught what to look for to ensure everyone is on the same page — something employees have not been adequately trained for in the past.
The Herald has always seen itself as a bastion of free speech, but we’ve also tried to serve as an extension of this community and the student body’s dominant public forum. We only hope we can prove to all of you, moving forward, our steadfast dedication to both those principles.
Disclaimer: due to the discussion we wish to have with the campus community regarding both our advertising and commenting policies, the comments on this letter should revolve around those issues only; comments not relevant to this discussion will be removed.