Editors or Censors?

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David
Horowitz has rendered a service to freedom in America by provoking
debate about free speech and political correctness. He submitted
to several major college newspapers an
advertisement
arguing against reparations for slavery. Most
papers refused to print the ad; some that did were then vandalized
or intimidated by student radicals. The ensuing controversy exploded
into the national
spotlight
, prompting our chattering classes to take a look at
what can and cannot be said on American campuses.

What's
been missing from the debate so far however is a serious consideration
of the nature of censorship. Is it censorship for a newspaper to
refuse to run an advertisement or to apologize once it has printed
the ad?

Despite
what Horowitz
and another brave Californian – Ward
Connerly
– think, it clearly is not censorship for a paper
to apologize for an advertisement or run a rebuttal. How can additional
discussion of the issue, even in the form of an apology, be censorship?
The Daily Californian was certainly foolish to apologize
and is simply wrong on the issue of reparations, but it has not
censored anyone. Horowitz got to say his piece and the editors said
theirs.

Nor
is it censorship for a private newspaper to refuse the ad altogether.
If anything it's closer to censorship to assert the opposite, that
newspapers must publish every point of view. That amounts to forced
speech – or, in the absence of real force, ethically obligated speech.
It's nonsense. A publication does not have a ethical obligation
to express views that it opposes any more than an individual has
such an obligation. National Review is not ethically obligated to
sell ad space to Planned Parenthood. LewRockwell.com is not ethically
obligated to sell ad space to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms. And, like it or not, the Harvard Crimson is not ethically
obligated to sell ad space to David Horowitz.

Horowitz'
project takes advantage of Leftist hypocrisy, which is a very good
thing. Establishment college newspapers with their archetypal Leftist
editors will profess to favor expression of all views, no matter
how repulsive. Indeed, two papers (at Notre Dame and Penn State)
that refused to run Horowitz' ad previously ran ads denying the
Holocaust. Horowitz has marvelously illustrated the failure of Leftists
to abide by their own standards, or even their own lack of standards.

But
the lesson here is not that papers have to publish everything, rather
that if you profess to be open to all points of view, you'd better
be prepared to live up to it. A more sensible and honest course
for these papers is for them to identify themselves as what they
really are – outlets for "respectable" center-Left opinion.
If they're honest about it, no one will blame them for refusing
to print a conservative (and common sense) advertisement. These
papers aren't guilty of censorship, they're guilty of fraud for
passing themselves off as objective and unbiased when they're anything
but.

That
goes to the heart of the matter. No doubt there are some people
who think that newspapers should be unbiased and open to all points
of view. This line of thinking usually becomes incoherent under
examination – the entire point of an editor is to decide what is and
is not fit to print, and any publication will have some selection
criteria. Those criteria and the editor's judgment are its bias.
The best any publication can do is make as clear as possible to
its readers what its bias is. That's why the first thing you see
on LewRockwell.com is the name of its editor and its description,
"the anti-state, anti-war, pro-market news site."

The
argument that newspapers and other media are a public service and
therefore obligated to provide a variety of views is very dangerous.
They are not a public service and should not be regarded as public
property. To say this is not to attack the notion of a "public
sphere." Just the opposite. Only if editors and publications
are free to make their own decisions about what to say and not to
say can there be any possibility of intellectual diversity. If Antiwar.com
has an obligation to the public to provide all sides of its issue,
it cannot remain Antiwar.com. It'll become a cacophony of pro- and
anti-war views that will do justice to neither side. (Not that there
is any justice to the pro-war side.)

A
more concrete danger is that the State will intervene as it has
in other "public" services. Already the State has deemed
that if you want to rent out your house you cannot "discriminate"
against potential renters based on a number of factors. If you're
a devout Christian you must nevertheless rent your property to flamboyant
drag queens. Do we want to see the same thing happen in the media,
where publications are forced to say things antithetical to themselves?
That's the slippery slope we embark upon when the press is considered
a public service.

Horowitz
has certainly been right to try to buy space for his ads and in
his larger goal of combating political correctness and the invidious
notion of reparations. But he and his defenders are wrong to call
it censorship when the editors of private publications refuse to
publish his views. There is no God-given right to a piece of someone
else's publication, even if you pay for it, and a free press must
above all be free to exercise editorial judgment.

March
23, 2001

Daniel
McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University
in St. Louis.

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