Running a newspaper in Madison, or in any city, comes with a responsibility to readers. A current controversy involving a hateful advertisement in the UW-Madison student paper, The Badger Herald, where I serve as publisher, has raised questions about what that entails. The answers, I submit, are more gray than black or white.
The Herald felt an angry blowback this week after it ran an advertisement on the paper's website from a Holocaust denier named Bradley Smith. As publisher, I had the unique perspective of sitting in the Herald's situation room through hours of debate about the ad.
Some members of Madison's Jewish community, and others, are outraged that the Herald would give this infamous denier a platform to spew his veiled anti-Semitism. I heard that outrage loud and clear on Thursday night as I sweated up on stage, alongside Herald editor Jason Smathers, in front of a campus lecture hall.
Several experts in media and law were on hand to discuss the harms the toxic link caused, and why we were wrong. The event was a lopsided browbeating, but allowed many concerns to be aired. Most felt the Herald acted in reckless disregard of the rights of the community.
I strongly disagree. I think the Herald acted in a way that honors the community, by having confidence in its intelligence.
The paper decided to run the $75 ad for one month on its website because it trusted that people on campus and throughout the community would be able to see through its lies. (Initially the ad slipped online without being noticed as a potential problem by ad staff, but was scrutinized shortly thereafter through a process with a board of nine students.)
We at the Herald recognize the painful sting caused by deniers like Smith, and by no means condone or support his mission. It is obvious by my classmates' tears, and faces in the crowd in Bascom Hall Thursday night, how much the community suffered by being subjected to the ad that calls for "open debate on the Holocaust."
But I and others at the paper have faith that the community, and particularly the Jewish community Smithtargets, can readily expose his lies. I am convinced that our decision to allow his expression, rather than suppress as being too dangerous for the public to hear, was the right thing to do, allowing a positive result and growth that would not have otherwise occurred.
When I hear students say, "I can't believe people in the world actually would say these things," I am reminded that ignoring the problem does not make it go away. We hope to do more harm to the ad, and its message, than it will do to our community.
The Herald has stood by its principles, allowing the marketplace to stomp out hate and lies. We would rather embrace the American opportunity to face all sorts of speech, and acknowledge hate exists.
We currently review ads for libelous, obscene or inciting content. But we will not censor an ad content solely on the basis of its offensiveness, outrageousness, or even falsity, because many ads that are offensive, outrageous and even false still contribute productively to public and commercial discourse.
That said, we are always willing to review an revise our paper's policies. Every day of working at the Herald is a learning experience. We make adult decisions with a group of 60 employees. There are no professionals, or anyone older than 30, and we are not paid like professionals.
We are continuing to debate whether the ad should continue to run, as we learn more about Smith's history of Jewish persecution and the lengths to which he will go not only in public discourse, but in private communication through mass e-mails to spread his hatred. We disavow any link between our paper and his ideas.
But as of the moment I write this we have chosen the route of freedom of speech, as terrible as his speech is.
I have heard students condemn our decision by starting, "I'm all for freedom of speech but..." That implies we should be afraid to allow the airing of certain views. I am not afraid, and know the campus community can step up to the challenge and dismiss the ad as vile.
Nick Penzenstadler is publisher of the Badger Herald and, currently, an editorial intern at Isthmus.