Agitation Over an Ad

March 31, 2001

 



Marching to Allen Building: students cross campus
to President Keohane's office.

Debate raged on campus in March as the Duke community reacted to an advertisement, published in The Chronicle, against reparations for slavery. A protest staged in the Union Building preceded a sit-in at Chronicle offices and a silent demonstration outside the office of President Nannerl O. Keohane.
The full-page ad, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too,” was written by conservative author David Horowitz and appeared in the March 19 issue. Of the forty-seven college and university newspapers receiving the ad, nineteen had rejected it as of March 22. National news stories, focusing on campuses beyond Duke, reported on angry students confiscating newspapers and editors feeling compelled to issue apologies. Chronicle editor Greg Pessin ’01, in an editor’s column, “Why The Chronicle ran the reparations ad,” wrote, “The controversial opinions presented by this advertisement are sure to offend many and should provoke responses from people on both sides of the issue. Unfortunately, students at other campuses have squandered the opportunity to explore the issue and Horowitz’s viewpoint, choosing instead to focus on whether his voice should have been heard in the first place.”

Outside the president’s office, according to The Chronicle, “The group of mostly black students, many in tears, formed a human chain as they handed Keohane petitions that listed two demands of the university and four of The Chronicle.” Keohane, in e-mail messages to the protest’s organizers, rejected one demand—that the administration and individual departments withdraw ads from the student newspaper—and accepted another
—that the administration compile a report addressing progress on demands made by black students in 1969, 1975, and 1997.
Chronicle editors rejected all four demands directed at the student newspaper—that it provide space free of charge for an ad refuting Horowitz’s argument and place a full-page apology beside it the next day, that it return profits from the reparations ad to Horowitz or donate the $793.50 to another cause, that it adequately cover minority issues, and that it establish a formal system to review advertising decisions. The newspaper said the last two demands were already in place.
On March 26, a forum and a panel discussion, sponsored by the university, the Sanford Institute of Public Policy, and the DeWitt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism, drew an overflow crowd to the Sanford Institute’s Fleishman Commons. The panel included Chronicle editor Pessin; Wil- liam Raspberry, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism at Duke; Houston Baker, professor of English and Afro-American literature and culture; Ellen Mickiewicz, Shepley Professor of Public Policy and director of the DeWitt Wallace Center; Susan Tifft ’73, Pat- terson Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy; William Van Alstyne, Perkins Professor of Law and specialist on constitutional law, civil rights, and civil liberties; and protestors Kelly Black and Carliss Chatman, both Duke seniors.
Mickiewicz, in beginning the discussion, said the controversy pointed to the fragility of the campus community, a notion that is “neither simple nor permanent.” Chatman said “the whole community should find [the advertisement] offensive,” and—along with others on the panel and in the audience—suggested that the controversy transcended a particular editorial policy. Black, president of the Duke chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the better course for The Chronicle would have been to publish Horowitz’s views as an opinion piece; some in the audience said the newspaper should have put aside the ad and treated the national controversy surrounding the anti-reparations ad as a news story. Black also questioned why a segment of the community would have to feel hurt in order to provoke the kind of dialogue that others were lauding.
Baker, from the perspective of “an African-American scholar of the twenty-first century on a putatively enlightened campus,” declared himself “insulted and vilified” by the ad. He said the appearance of the ad was symptomatic of a campus environment that wasn’t fully welcoming of African-American students.
Raspberry, mentioning his forty years in the newspaper industry, said that in general, “the idea that opinions should be suppressed is repugnant.” In this case, he added, each side had credible arguments, and “people can disagree without being racists or fools.” At the same time, “The Chronicle doesn’t exist in its own little First Amendment vacuum; it is part of this community.” If the decision were up to him, he said, he would have rejected an ad clearly meant to provoke an “incendiary” reaction.
Other panelists leaned in a different direction. Tifft observed that newspapers are on shaky ground when they censor opinion. She mentioned the 1950s-era decision of The New York Times to ban book ads promoting Spartacus because the work supposedly promoted socialist views. And she said that the notion of “community standards” is amorphous. There’s at least one newspaper, she noted, that refuses to run stories with a gay theme owing to its sense of its community.
Van Alstyne emphasized the significance of The Chronicle’s independence. He referred to a past Chronicle decision, some ten years ago, to publish a Holocaust denial ad—a step that, he said, stimulated campus interest in the Holocaust. By contrast, he noted, the con- tent of the current ad is “tepid.” In weighing the choice between publishing and withholding publication, a campus newspaper—in the interest of supporting “higher education rather than controlled inculcation”—should find it “better to err on the side of trusting your audience to be able to read and to know how to distinguish information from propaganda,” he said. The suppression of opinion isn’t justified, he suggested, merely to “preserve the thin veneer of community.”
For his part, Pessin told the audience that Duke is “first an academic community,” and that implies an obligation to “discuss intellectually all views.” The value of diversity, he said, should extend to “diversity of ideas.” He added, “Content can be offensive” in any given issue of his publication, but there are times when “the free exchange of ideas can come at the expense of comfort.”
At the end of the program, which lasted well over two hours, Raspberry declared himself impressed that the exchange was “sharp and civil.” A student in the crowd, one of the protest leaders, said he was determined to encourage students to stay “politically active” around the issue of race.