David Horowitz must be happy. For $750, the ’60s liberal agitator turned new millennium conservative bought a full-page advertisement titled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea — and Racist Too” in the March 13 Brown Daily Herald. It must be among the best $750 he’s ever spent.
The campus erupted — and not because of Horowitz’s bad grammar. Students and faculty members were particularly incensed by Reason No. 9: “What About the Debt Blacks Owe America?” A morsel: “If not for the sacrifices of white soldiers and a white American president who gave his life to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks in America would still be slaves.” A coalition of students stole and destroyed nearly all of the Herald’s press run. The paper’s editors dug in their heels. The university condemned the theft. The protests and counter-protests mounted. Police were called in to guard newspaper stands. One front-page New York Times story and countless television talk shows later, the dust of this muddled brouhaha appears to be slowly settling.
For campus newspaper editors, this whole affair is mildly disturbing. At universities, we are especially accustomed to liberal attitudes toward freedom of speech and expression. We regard as repugnant to these principles the actions of the students who, by stealing papers, decided for the entire community that the advertisement should not be read by anyone. Brown initially met reports of the theft with a strong statement backing the Herald’s right to publish content that may be offensive. A statement issued Tuesday by Brown’s interim president, Shelia E. Blumstein, unfortunately backs off slightly from this position.
What is often overlooked outside the university’s gates is that stealing and destroying newspapers, be it under guise of civil disobedience, protest or outrage, is theft, plain and simple. We encourage Brown administrators and the Providence police to discipline and prosecute those responsible. If students — or anyone else, for that matter — get the idea that throwing out newspapers or magazines with which they disagree is an acceptable practice, well, that is bad for us all.
It must be said, though, that the Herald exercised poor judgment by accepting an advertisement in its newspaper after the same advertisement stoked tension and engendered protests and apologies at campus newspapers across the nation just weeks earlier. Advertising space is not sacred ground; it is space bought with money. That space comes with restrictions and standards far different from those on an opinion or editorial page. A newspaper has no obligation to accept an advertisement that could cause trouble, no more than a restaurant has an obligation to seat a noisy and disruptive patron. Writing opinion pieces and news stories that may upset readers is often good journalism. Selling advertisements that alienate customers is just bad business.
But by stealing the papers, protesting students made a bigger gaffe. Thanks entirely to their theft, hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise never would have been exposed to it have read the advertisement or read stories about it that excerpt its most offensive details.