Editorial: Free speech vs. moral obligation

In Editorials, Opinion

Society is nothing more than a loose collection of laws, rules and taboos that the people who make up society agree upon. When one of those laws, rules or taboos is broken, there are consequences. In the case of laws and rules, the punishment is more tangible than in the case of taboos. Often, those within a society purposely break the taboos of their collective, whether it be to change them for the betterment or detriment of their society.

In February 2010, University of Wisconsin-Madison newspaper The Badger Herald inadvertently ran an advertisement on its website that was directly associated with “Holocaust revisionist” Bradley R. Smith. Upon discovering the ad’s placement, The Badger Herald staff held several meetings to determine whether it would leave the ad or take it down. Initially, they opted to leave it until the end of its paid run. Two weeks later, they took it down. After both decisions were made, the Badger Herald received criticism for its actions, or lack thereof.

Months before that, Harvard and Yale inadvertently ran the ad, which created controversy and drew national attention. It is difficult to assume that three major universities would run this ad not believing it to be objectionable, and then changing their minds only after receiving criticism. In reality, Smith used a deliberate process to ensure that his ad would appear on the websites he purchased space from.

Smith starts by using a third party to solicit the ad space. The ad is paid for, and he then turns in the link to the ad after the deadline, right before it is supposed to go live on the websites he is advertising with. In a rush to meet their end of the deal, the publications allow the link to go live without taking the time they normally would to review the content of the ad and what it linked to.

For those of our readers who may not have noticed, the Daily Titan fell for Smith’s ploy, and for two weeks ran his ad on our website. The Daily Titan has since removed this ad, but only after multiple discussions and debate. Knowing the history of Smith’s ad but not wanting to defer to the decisions of other publications, the staff of The Daily Titan struggled with the implications of both running and removing an ad of this nature.
The ad, which appeared as part of the rotating banner ads at the top of the Daily Titan website, is rather unassuming, displaying only a white background with blue text reading, “The Irrational Vocabulary of the American Professorial Class ….” No one on the staff noticed it and most people who visited the site likely ignored it because of its bland nature, unlike the flashy designs of many advertisements more commonly seen on the Internet.

If any of our readers saw the ad before it was removed and were offended by its content, we sincerely apologize, as it was not our intent to upset or anger any member of our community.
We were only made aware of the ad’s existence after Smith e-mailed the Daily Titan Executive Editor, congratulating him and the entire Daily Titan for “its willingness to run an on-line banner that links to the text of a talk I gave at the Holocaust conference in Tehran (Iran) in December 2006. The full title of the talk was ‘The Irrational Vocabulary of the Professorial Class with Regard to the Holocaust Question.’”

We immediately followed the link embedded in the ad to the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust’s website, more specifically to the transcript of a speech that Smith gave. Smith makes a number of claims in this speech, most of which are questions of what society has come to accept as fact in reference to the Holocaust.

Our initial reaction, to both reading Smith’s letter to the Daily Titan and his speech, was to remove his advertisement immediately and refund his money. This was our final decision, but only after several discussions about First Amendment rights and what it means to stand for free speech.

The Daily Titan staff does not share the opinion presented by Smith, but we felt for a time that if we silenced Smith by removing his ad from our site, we would be hypocrites. As advocates for free speech, we would be silencing someone’s voice simply because we disagreed with what they said. It did not sit right with us to decide for society what it should and should not be exposed to. But in the end, we realized that this is something we do every day, just not to such a complicated and controversial degree. As journalists, we are the gatekeepers of information. We make decisions based on what we believe is important or of interest to the Cal State Fullerton community.

We ultimately decided to remove the ad from our website because we believed we have a responsibility to the sensibilities and sense of decency of our readers. We hold the right to free speech in the highest regard, but we also make a distinction between our legal right to publish this ad and our moral obligation to our readers; that is what lead us to our decision.

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  • Harry

    The Holocaust is a myth. No one of credibility from the younger generations believe it, unlike the older generations who will believe anything, such as WMD in Iraq and all the other absurdities they push on society.

  • Ricardo

    I have carefully read your Editorial, and you failed to mention, as board of directors and / or students of journalism, what it is that is so wrong about Smith’s ad speech in which you write, “he makes a number of claims… most of which are questions of what society has come to accept as fact in reference to the Holocaust.” Are you interested in protecting your reader from these new ideas? Are Smith claims Thought Crimes?
    You are running a University newspaper at least you should allowed both sides of the coin to be represented faily, revisionism is as old as History and it is curiously in the Holocaust narrative in which revisionism has not been accepted by historians , in other cases revisionist arguments are welcome…so more reason to do a bit of research before you close the case..by the way this is called journalism !

  • Disgusted

    “Harry” – you’re a fool. Any young person who DOES NOT believe the Holocaust occured, need only visit the still-standing gas chambers of Auschwitz and Majdanek. You cheapen the memory of survivors who I am related to by allowing Nazis like Bradley R. Smith to spew their hateful lies.

    “Harry” is clearly not a CSUF student — because he lacks the intellect to make factual comments. Buzz off Harry!

  • Disgusted

    “Ricardo” – when you allow someone like Smith to spew forth lies and hatred, it doesn’t have to be on a college campus where intelligence is valued. Clearly, you place no value on intelligence and therefore have none. Go hear him speak and while your at it, put a swastika on your arm and spit in the face of every survivor who made it through. If you’re so worried about presenting “new ideas” – YOU rent the room and give the speech, and the we can protest YOU.

    You’re a moron and your comment is both pithy and sad.

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