There is an interesting controversy in New York where The New York Times ran an ad calling on Catholics to leave their church, but refused to run a similar ad targeting Muslims. Conservatives have jumped on what they say is a double standard. They may have a point.
The New York Times ran an ad from Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation on March 9 which asked Catholics, “why send your children to parochial schools to be indoctrinated into the next generation of obedient donors and voters?” The group also referenced “two decades of sex scandals involving preying priests, church complicity, collusion and cover-up going all the way to the top.” While the newspaper has been attacked by Catholic groups, it is in my view a core exercise of free speech and the newspaper was right to run the advertisement. I do not see why newspaper should censor our advertisements that criticize religion while running hard hitting advertisements taking sides on environmental, taxation, and other divisive issues. Moreover, I would rather see political or religious advocacy in ads than another advertisement for Viagra or “Gator Boys.”
Then there is the added controversy over the refusal to run an advertisement by Pamela Geller, a blogger and executive director of Stop Islamization of America. Geller offered the same $39,000 to run an ad with a similar appeal to Muslims. I have not seen the proposed ad. [Update: both ads are below] However, if it was the same message, I fail to see why one is allowed and another is not.
In a letter, NYT officials reportedly focused on the response of Muslims to such an ad as opposed to its design: “The fallout from running this ad now could put U.S. troops and/or civilians in the [Afghan] region in danger.”
I am not sure that we should start to restrict speech on the basis of content in fear of a response of extremists in other countries. That would appear to reward the violence and anti-speech conduct of such extremists. It is precisely what occurred after 2005 when a Danish newspaper published cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. The result were worldwide protests in which Muslims reportedly killed more than 100 people — a curious way to demonstrate religious tolerance. However, while newspapers swore allegiance to free press values, there was an obvious level of self-censorship to avoid pictures and cartoons of Muhammad and Islam in general. Even academic institutions like Yale University Press exhibited the same response.
The editors in this case promised that they would consider publishing the ad in a few months because “we publish this type of advertising, even those we disagree with, because we believe in the First Amendment.” However, that does not explain why they will yield to extremists in the interim. Because Catholics are not expected to become violent, they may be targeted in ads. Moreover, there was once a claim that we were fighting for democratic values in Afghanistan and Iraq. While that claim now appears tragically naive, no one told us that (in order to foster such values in those countries) we would need to curtail such values in the United States.
I have been trying to find more on this story. I believe that the New York Times does have an obligation to address the allegations and correct any misinformation. I recognize that there is a legitimate refusal to bar some ads as racist or sexist or prejudicial. However, this is a delicate balance for media companies who must remain faithful to free speech values. If the ads are similarly worded and constructed, there is a troubling judgment made on the basis for content in this case.
What do you think?