Friday, March 05, 2010

Holocaust Denial Ad in the Badger Herald

One of the two student newspapers here at UW Madison, The Badger Herald, ran a paid ad on its website before realizing that the ad is a link to a Holocaust denial web site. After some discussion, the paper's board decided to continue to honor their agreement to run the paid ad. [The above video is from the Herald's web site.] Then the stuff hit the fan.

As explained in this news story:
The newspaper's board of directors have defended the decision to place the ad, stating its presence did not qualify to be rejected by newspaper ad rules, and that students were thoughtful enough to reject its message. But students, professors and other on campus have called on the newspaper to discontinue the ad as blatantly false.

WKOW27 News reporter Jamie Hersch spoke with Greg Steinburger, the director of the Hillel Foundation at UW. Steinburger says that no pulling the ad is "unconscionable." He also said that he is already hearing from parents of prospective UW students who are concerned about whether Madison or UW is friendly to the Jewish community.
I think if I had been in their place I might have refused their ad but would have left it in place if I had found out what it was only after agreeing to run it. Part of the reason for leaving it up is that I don't think the fact that someone is promulgating odious opinions is enough to justify breaching a contract with them, just as it is not enough to justify defacing their property or beating them up.

That is why I think of this as a free speech case. Obviously, you don't have a free speech right, or any right, to appear in someone else's newspaper. On the other hand, if you enter a contract with someone, you do have a right that they do what they contracted to do. Censorship is based on the idea that if you hold views that are sufficiently false or noxious, then we have a right to do things to you that would violate your rights if you only had the right beliefs. Thus I regard pulling the ad as morally equivalent to censorship. (Though admittedly a trivial one when compared to the evils that typically go by that name.)

During the WKOW news segment I saw about the controversy, the Badger Herald's publisher made a useful distinction. He said that they would not run ad ad from the Ku Klux Klan, because it is an organization that we know has violated the rights of individual human beings. He is assuming of course that merely holding an opinion, however wrong it might be, does not violate an enforceable right. I agree.

[Note: As I have explained elsewhere, I regard Holocaust denial as a vicious anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. I'm not questioning the awfulness of the opinion involved.]

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