Hate and Free Speech at Wisconsin

A student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Madison drew an unusual and alarming advertising request for its online edition. The request to the Badger Herald came a few weeks ago from an agent for Bradley R. Smith, a notorious denier of the Holocaust and founder of the loopy fringe group, Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. Unlike ads in the Herald’s paper edition, online ads linger for a month, providing more opportunity for mischief.
Like some other controversies involving the Herald in recent years, this episode began, essentially, as an accident. The process involved in the placing of ads did not fully vet Smith’s advertisement, which announced his mission and provided an Internet link to his group and other materials. The ad remained on line unnoticed for five days before persons at Hillel, the Jewish center, noticed it and urged the Herald to withdraw it
Many Jewish students had already felt aggrieved by the Herald because of another incident a few weeks before Smith’s ad appeared. Anonymous sources had published threatening anti-Semitic remarks in the “Comments” sections that accompanied the paper’s stories of incidents relating to a party at a Jewish fraternity. Alarmed, the Herald expunged these comments, but only after the damage was done.
Made aware of Smith’s ad, the Herald’s board had to decide what to do. The board of nine students votes independently, but the students consider advice given by faculty members who do not have voting power. Advisors (I am one) provide advice in a manner that is designed to preserve the independence of the board. At a meeting the board voted to do two things: keep the ad up, and produce an editorial, written by editor in chief Jason Smathers, making clear that Holocaust denial is a pernicious fraud that lies outside the bounds of rational debate. I supported these decisions as an advisor. The editorial was a sign that the board knew Smith’s ad was different from the usual controversial ads.

In reaching this decision, the Herald board relied on two things: its own distinguished tradition of pushing the free speech/First Amendment envelope on a campus that often supports ideological consensus; and a long line of First Amendment theory holding that the best way to deal with evil and false counsels is to expose them to the light of rational intelligence. Evil and falsehood exist in the world, and it is better to face them and expose them than to ignore them. As Justice Brandeis wrote in a prominent free speech case in 1927, “To courageous, self-reliant men [and women], with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government…the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
This position has merit in free-speech policy and lore. But the Herald was also aware of obvious counter-points, including the claim that accepting the interactive ad provided Smith with a forum, and that this might legitimate him to others. In the end, the Herald decided that the free-speech argument outweighed the other arguments. But to emphasize that its position was based on the idea of exposure rather that the proposition that Smith’s views should be debated, the board decided to write the op-ed that announced its reasoning and denounced everything for which Smith and his group stand.
This action propelled the Herald into free-speech territory it had not trodden before. Previous Herald conflicts had involved the usual suspects: publishing controversial cartoons and op-ed pieces such as David Horowitz’s famous 2001 “advertisement” opposing government payment of reparations for slavery. Such controversial pieces were clearly within the realm of acceptable discourse. Nonetheless, they sparked campus tension and even upheaval, and the Herald almost always weathered the storm by sticking to its free speech credentials, earning widespread respect, even from its enemies (however begrudging at times).
The Herald knew that Bradley Smith and Holocaust denial belong in a different category, but it did not fully appreciate just how different they are. After the Herald announced its decision, Smith began to manipulate the situation by making YouTube videos attacking members of Hillel and the administration and by sending spam emails to various targets, including Jewish members of the community. We soon learned that Smith had employed similar tactics with other student papers in the past—something we should have checked out in the first place. In addition, more virulently anti-Semitic comments reappeared in the “Comments” sections of the on-line paper, once again going unscreened.
Alarmed at the eruption of such hate in the campus’s most read paper, members of the Jewish community held a Holocaust Remembrance rally at which they denounced denial and the ad. The University of Wisconsin has the highest percentage of Jewish students of any public university in the country—a legacy of which it is proud. The University also held a forum to discuss journalism ethics. Though some incisive critiques were made, what was supposed to be a discussion of the issue eventually turned into a shaming ritual directed against Smathers and the Herald. Meanwhile, the University’s chancellor, Biddy Martin, wrote an op-ed in the Herald, declaring her faith that the University would answer Smith with the power of truth, thereby honoring its famous motto embracing the “fearless sifting and winnowing of ideas.”
Tensions appear to have settled down as of this writing, but lessons are being learned all around. After another meeting, the Herald board decided to keep the ad going until its expiration date last week, but also to pull the plug if Smith attempted to renew it. (The Herald has also refused to publish a recent op-ed article written by Smith.) After meeting privately with representatives from Hillel, the editors wrote another editorial defending the decision to let the ad run until its contract expires, but also acknowledging and regretting some mistakes. These included the paper’s administrative errors; its failure to anticipate how Smith would use the ad and the Internet as a springboard for verbal harassment of the community; and the failure to monitor properly the “Comments” page, thereby providing a forum for anti-Semitism and arousing fear among Jews. The Herald is now in the process of thinking more deeply about how to balance its fiduciary responsibility to support free speech with its obligation to not provide a vehicle for threatening expression and manipulation.
As for the University, the verdict is mixed, but largely positive. On the plus side, at no point did anyone in the administration threaten the Herald with retaliatory action (e.g., not allowing the paper to be distributed on campus), and the Chancellor’s public pronouncements have been consistent with the University’s tradition of sifting and winnowing—a point reinforced by a powerful op-ed written in the Herald by student Eric Schmidt the day after the forum. In addition, the campus community arose to voice its strong disapproval of Holocaust denial, and awareness of the evil effects of anti-Semitism is more acute. Furthermore, the incident made many members of the campus community (including the Herald) think harder about the balance between free speech and threatening hate. None of this would have happened had the Herald not acted as it did. On the negative side, the forum designed to encourage thinking about the facets of the issue turned into an emotional shaming exercise that demonstrated little respect for the free speech side of the argument.
More broadly, the episode provides a case study of the opportunities and challenges presented to prominent student newspapers in the Internet age. The Internet makes what happens in student papers relevant to broader audiences, giving such papers new influence and reach. (Herald conflicts have sometimes resonated nationally and even internationally). With this opportunity come responsibilities with which even seasoned papers struggle. Comment sections must be properly monitored, and advertising policies must take into account the differences between ads connected to the Internet and those that just sit for a day or two on the non-interactive pages of the papers’ print editions.
If properly dealt with, conflict and controversy strengthen institutions. The conscientious responses to this episode by the University and the Herald hold promise for such improvement and growth.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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