By Damon Krane
Thursday, April 26, 2001
The Athens News
Throughout the controversy surrounding David Horowitz’s ad against slavery reparations published in The Post and other newspapers across the country the attention given to freedom of speech has been too superficial. Athens NEWS columnist Amanda Sledz, for instance, defends Horowitz’s right to express views she disagrees with. She points out that Horowitz is a “trap master,” who has weaseled his way into being a martyr to the cause of free speech. If the Post had not printed the Horowitz ad, Sledz argues, the paper would have fallen into that trap. But I think Sledz and others have overlooked one of the most dangerous traps hidden in this situation.
Suppose instead of an advertisement, Horowitz had submitted the very same 10 reasons as a guest column or a letter to the editor. If the editors of any of those college newspapers had decided not to run his guest column, no one would have raised the issue of free speech. So why all the fuss about not running an ad?
To me, it’s highly questionable whether advertising should be considered a form of free speech at all. But it certainly shouldn’t be more entitled to free speech protection than the rest of the newspaper.
Now you might say, “But if I buy ad space, then nobody at that newspaper should be able to prevent me from printing it, right? That would be discrimination. That would be censorship.”
If we say that it is, then so is every editorial decision to change wording or not print a particular story or letter to the editor. Considering advertising a form of free speech does allow some people to bypass editorial authority, but only those with the money to do it. If we accept that, then we accept the idea that people who can buy free speech are more entitled to it than those who can’t.
To defend an advertiser’s “right” to buy free speech without calling into question editorial authority is to fall into this trap. And by doing so, many ardent defenders of free speech are ironically encouraging the very same situation freedom of speech is supposed to prevent. That is, a relatively small number of voices (in this case those who can afford it) dominating public communication.
If newspapers remain organized the way they are now, then I don’t think advertising should be seen as a form of free speech, because it silences those who can’t afford it. If editors retain ultimate power in determining the rest of the newspapers content, then advertisments should not get special privileges.
However, if we are really interested in promoting the kind of freedom of speech that wouldn’t just benefit people with money, then we need to rethink the way media are currently organized.
We need to ask questions like, Do we really need an editor with the ultimate power to determine the newspaper’s content? Are there other ways that media could be organized that would allow for more voices to be heard?
A newspaper covering local events, for example, could be open to contributions from all local residents writing on any issues they wish to address. Decisions affecting the whole publication could be made democratically by all of the contributors. If some material would ever need to be cut due to lack of space, this could be decided in a similar manner as well.
This alternative way of organizing a local publication wouldn’t do away with people who have been specially trained as journalists. It would simply open up media more to the rest of us, while lifting unnecessary restrictions on speech and doing away with the inevitability of editorial bias.
A group of local residents and students are trying to do something like this in a new local magazine, The Athens Agenda. If you’d like to be a part of it, e-mail [now defunct email address] or write Athens Agenda [now defunct P.O. Box].