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College Newspapers Face Controversy for Holding Pro-Life, Free Speech Ads

September 29, 2009

As fall semester speeds along, it has not been controversial editorializing but advertising that has earned the bulk of publicity for a growing number of student media outlets.  The Harvard Crimson‘s recent troubles centered on the Holocaust.  Currently, the issues papers face revolve around free speech and human life.

In Wisconsin, two student newspapers have decided to not publish the high-profile Human Life Alliance 12-page insert ad.  The ad, titled “We Know Better Now,” according to one report, “vigorously argues for the pro-life position. . . . arguing that it is now better known that abortion kills a human being, that it hurts women, and that abortion has a ‘racist legacy.'”  It is arguably the most divisive advertisement delivered regularly to campus newspapers nationwide and has caused problems for papers in the past.

The case at Bucknell University is more interesting.  The Bucknellian has refused to run an ad from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) decrying Bucknell’s recent tampering with student political speech on campus.  A Student Press Law Center report stated that FIRE “submitted the ad as part of a campaign to draw attention to schools on its Red Alert list- schools it says have the least amount of liberty on campus. The Bucknell ad criticized the school’s decision to shut down demonstrations by the Bucknell University Conservatives Club.”

The sponsoring organizations in the separate cases say the ad rejections stem from “a culture of fear” and a lack of common sense.  Editors’ main counters: 1) Having an ad published is a privilege (allowed at the newspaper’s discretion), not a right. 2) They are less inclined to run an ad causing controversy for controversy’s sake. 3) Ads spouting ideologies (especially divisive ones) instead of touting services must be evaluated by different parameters.

The best bet for all student media outlets:

  • Have a basic plan in place for dealing with more controversial ads, so you’re not caught off guard.
  • Embrace transparency in the decision-making process.
  • Communicate with readers and request feedback.
  • Brace for the fallout.  Accept the Catch-22 that controversy at times will be earned either by publishing or pulling an ad.  While you cannot control all the ensuing press or protests, you can facilitate a dialogue- one that can be beneficial for readers and your publication.
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