Editors or Censors?

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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