Ohio State University’s student paper, the Lantern, is taking heavy criticism from both members of the student body and beyond after the publication ran a controversial ad in this Monday’s issue. The angry and insulted say the paper allowed itself to be a sounding board for racist blather; the paper is waving around the First Amendment. It's made for the kind of free-speech dust-up that gets journalism nerds sweaty at their keyboards. (Guilty). But really, if you look the controversy over with only your Constitutional Rights goggles on, you're going to miss the point.
The copy, which was printed on the second page, was titled “Former Leaders of the Muslim Student Association (MSA): Where are they now?”; the rest of the ad, reproduced above, features the names of past members of the campus student organization with alleged ties to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. So yeah, very subtle stuff. The ad is a sales pitch for a pamphlet titled “Muslim Hate Groups On Campus,” written by Daniel Greenfield and printed by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. This is one of those far-right groups that think the Koran is the field guide for the complete annihilation of Western Civilization and Israel has been way too soft on the Palestinians.
After the ad ran, the paper was overrun with complaints from students about why the publication would allow a blatantly bigoted ad into its pages.
“I am offended not only as a Muslim or as a general-body member of the MSA, but as a member of the OSU community,” an undergraduate student told the Columbus Dispatch. “We do not stand for discrimination, hate or intolerance here.”
Knotty issues for a news outlet, no doubt. At big money shops, this kind of thing would fall under the hat of the in-house ombudsman, which, as far as we can tell from here in the cheap seats, is usually not some valiant Romeneskoesque saint, but just a dusty newsroom soon-to-be-pensioner who unloosens his double Windsor whenever an ethical problem rears its head, pours a Scotch, and purposely drums fingers on an oak desk while contemplating the Void.
But at smaller publications, these issues are usually aired out in the open, after the fact. The Lantern has done a good job (politely) telling everyone to go take a cold shower about the whole thing. The school's faculty adviser told the Dispatch that the paper has the right to turn down ads if they're determined to denigrate “individuals, groups or organizations based on such things as race, nationality, ethnicity and religion.” The publication didn't feel that was the case with the Greenfield ad.
For the most part, the paper's editorial staff has also addressed the issue with a clear-eyed common sense. In an opinion piece penned by former-Lantern staffer and devout Muslim Ayan Sheikh, the writer says the outraged have “overreacted over something they knew almost nothing about.” Sheikh drives home a point most non-journos don't understand, which is that the edit and sales departments of all pubs, from Duke’s Racing Weekly to the New York Times, are completely autonomous, operating in respective dark to one another.
I've personally received several phone calls and text messages from fellow Muslims and MSA members asking me if I knew why The Lantern staff chose to run such offensive ads.
I told them all the same thing: you should not associate the ads that run in the student newspaper with the editors, they have no control nor do they have a say. They are only responsible for the written content, i.e. articles in the paper.
The current Lantern staff echoes this theme in another editorial published Tuesday.
“Because of the separation between the editorial and business sides, our staff saw the ad for the first time when we picked up copies of the paper Monday, just like our readers. And we do not deny that the ad was incredibly offensive to Muslims and to OSU students in general,” the editorial states. And later: “Our staff found the ad to be incredibly offensive and ignorant. We do not agree with the content of the ad and we are not happy that so many of our readers were hurt by its content.”
But within the same piece, the Lantern staff turns down a wrong ally when they next defend the ad with the First Amendment:
But we, as a staff, also hold the right to free speech near and dear to our hearts. Though we do not endorse or agree with the views in the ad, we do believe that Daniel Greenfield, the author of the pamphlet pictured in the ad, has a right to his opinions. While we would hope that America has moved past this ignorant way of thinking, this country was founded on certain core values, and the right to express your views, no matter how insulting they may be, is one of those values. Though we had no say in the matter, we do not question the sales staff's decision to run this advertisement. The second The Lantern rejects an advertisement or other content solely on the grounds that we do not agree with the views it expresses or that it might offend some people, our integrity as a journalistic organization will have been compromised because we will have denied someone the right that we invoke every single day — the right to free speech. Whether or not we agree with the advertisement or are offended by its content, which we assure you, we were, if the sales staff had rejected the ad, our readers would have been the losers in the long run.
What's not airtight argument here is yoking the integrity of the paper's editorial department to decisions about advertising. Although the issue here is speech, it's not exactly an issue of free speech. Let's keep in mind: Greenfield and his backers paid for the space, a fact that may go without saying, but one that's not mentioned explicitly in the editorial. He wasn't invoking his right to free speech, he paid about $500 for it, according to the Dispatch.
Advertising really isn't free speech; according to the US Supreme Court, it falls under the separate classification of “commercial speech” (a classification that, if you really want to go full-geek on the subject, has been nudged closer to the legal status of free speech over the last decade after a number of right-leaning court decisions, but still is not completely under the same umbrella). So it's not as if the paper cleared some column inches for Greenfield to rant about Muslims on campus and now must defend the decision to do so — for a newspaper, the ethics of free speech in such instances are pretty obvious.
But the Greenfield ad was a pay to play situation, so jumping on the pyre for the First Amendment isn't all that necessary. The issue is about a business decision the paper made, and those ethics are never as cut and dry.