Don Downs on UW-Madison Newspaper’s Internet-Age Free Speech Dilemma

By on March 25, 2010

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Don Downs has an essay today at Minding the Campus worth reading, in which he discusses how he and the staff of the Badger Herald newspaper dealt with a controversy involving an advertisement run by Holocaust denier Bradley R. Smith on its website. Downs explains that

Like some other controversies involving the Herald in recent years, this episode began, essentially, as an accident. The process involved in the placing of ads did not fully vet Smith’s advertisement, which announced his mission and provided an Internet link to his group and other materials. The ad remained on line unnoticed for five days before persons at Hillel, the Jewish center, noticed it and urged the Herald to withdraw it.  

This incident came on the heels of another anti-Semitism controversy at the Herald, in which "Anonymous sources had published threatening anti-Semitic remarks in the ‘Comments’ sections that accompanied the paper’s stories of incidents relating to a party at a Jewish fraternity," Downs says. The Herald, for which Downs is a faculty advisor, reached this compromise:

Made aware of Smith’s ad, the Herald’s board had to decide what to do. The board of nine students votes independently, but the students consider advice given by faculty members who do not have voting power. Advisors (I am one) provide advice in a manner that is designed to preserve the independence of the board. At a meeting the board voted to do two things: keep the ad up, and produce an editorial, written by editor in chief Jason Smathers, making clear that Holocaust denial is a pernicious fraud that lies outside the bounds of rational debate. I supported these decisions as an advisor. The editorial was a sign that the board knew Smith’s ad was different from the usual controversial ads.

In reaching this decision, the Herald board relied on two things: its own distinguished tradition of pushing the free speech/First Amendment envelope on a campus that often supports ideological consensus; and a long line of First Amendment theory holding that the best way to deal with evil and false counsels is to expose them to the light of rational intelligence. Evil and falsehood exist in the world, and it is better to face them and expose them than to ignore them. As Justice Brandeis wrote in a prominent free speech case in 1927, "To courageous, self-reliant men [and women], with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government…the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

This position has merit in free-speech policy and lore. But the Herald was also aware of obvious counter-points, including the claim that accepting the interactive ad provided Smith with a forum, and that this might legitimate him to others. In the end, the Herald decided that the free-speech argument outweighed the other arguments. But to emphasize that its position was based on the idea of exposure rather that the proposition that Smith’s views should be debated, the board decided to write the op-ed that announced its reasoning and denounced everything for which Smith and his group stand.

It was still rough going for the Herald, however; perhaps unavoidably, some of the anger within the UW community, which strongly denounced the ad, came back to the newspaper. Downs talks of a forum held on journalism ethics, which unfortunately "turned into a shaming ritual directed against Smathers and the Herald." The Herald is currently rethinking various administrative processes to prevent it from inadvertently giving a forum to views that it deems "outside the bounds of rational debate."

Still, Downs’ verdict for UW’s handling of the situation is mostly positive; no one from the Herald has been sanctioned by the administration, and there has been much talk on campus of late of letting Smith’s views fail in the marketplace of ideas, rather than rendering such hostile views inaudible to the community. Downs calls the incident "a case study of the opportunities and challenges presented to prominent student newspapers in the Internet age," and is optimistic that the "conscientious responses to this episode by the University and the Herald hold promise for such improvement and growth."

Other student newspapers, take note. Read the rest of Downs’ essay here.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Madison