Ad Nauseum: Race and Free Speech at the Daily Californian

The New Republic
March 7, 2001

The Daily Californian is doing it again, bless its soul.

The newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley has always had a Madonna-like ability to reinvent itself, remaining relevant and controversial long after its presumed zenith. The Daily Cal found itself in the middle of a new controversy last week after it published a full-page advertisement against reparations for slavery. The ad, written by leftist-turned-right-wing-agitator David Horowitz, was titled, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea–and Racist Too.”

It didn’t go over well. Protesters representing minority groups showed up at the Daily Cal offices and demanded an apology; they also confiscated whatever copies of the offending issue they could find. The incident was so heated that the police showed up. The next day the paper published a front-page apology and a lengthy explanation from its editor, who said the ad should not have run.

But this political seppuku only sparked another round of objections, this time from people who said the paper shouldn’t have apologized, because the ad was an expression of free speech (albeit paid for, at a cost of $1,200). The controversy has revived the familiar debate: Should speech, whether free or paid for, be limited at a college paper because it might be inflammatory, or racist, or repulsive?

All of this takes me back to 1983, when I was on the paper’s Senior Editorial Board and we had to decide whether to run a recruiting ad from the Central Intelligence Agency. The paper had refused such ads for many years, but the political climate was changing, and the paper was in dire financial straits. We needed the money.

After much debate along familiar lines, somebody suggested a brilliant compromise–we should run the ad with a prominent disclaimer, of the sort that appears on packs of cigarettes. It would say something like, “The Central Intelligence Agency is an organization that has been involved in the assassination of foreign leaders, the overturning of democratically-elected governments, and the training of right-wing death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.” This way, the CIA would get its ad, we could take their money with clear consciences, and the language majors would find out that the agency was looking for a few good spies to perform work of a potentially unsavory nature.

In the end, we refused the ad, for what I remember were unfortunate doctrinaire reasons. I may have been responsible for some of those reasons, since, as co-editor of the editorial page, I was the enforcer of the faith, whatever it happened to be. We did, however, accept ads from the National Security Agency–I suppose because we thought they hadn’t actually killed anyone. Consistency clearly wasn’t our strong point. If you wanted ponderous thinking from no-nonsense strivers, you would have done better to swallow a No-Doz and consult the pages of the Stanford Daily or Harvard Crimson.

The CIA fuss wasn’t the only controversy at the time; in fact, it was a trifle compared to the Dos Equis uproar. The beer company had paid for color inserts that featured Hooters-ish females in tight shorts and tighter shirts–hardly the picture of womanhood that many of our highly-educated readers wished to see. A petition that ended up being several feet long was gathered on Sproul Plaza and then presented to the paper’s editors; some of the petition-bearers were carrying copies of the offending insert, aflame.

We issued the sort of abject apology that today’s Daily Cal editors issued for the slavery ad. I would not equate the two ads, though. A tasteless beer insert is planets apart, in its free speech implications, from an inflammatory political statement. You can check out the ad at Horowitz’s website and decide for yourself whether it should have run; you can read the apology, at the Daily Cal website, from the paper’s editor, too.

It’s easy to understand why many people view the ad as racist–it’s certainly provocative, as it was intended to be. It is also intellectually sloppy, to an extent that discredits its author. Some of what Horowitz writes makes sense, some is utter nonsense–all of which argues in favor of running his screed.

One of the lessons I learned after I graduated from Berkeley is that unaired prejudices tend to fester and can, one day, burst in ugly ways. The war in Bosnia, which I covered, is a case in point. Much of the nationalist fury in the Balkans, especially on the Serb side, stemmed from the manipulation of grudges that were not allowed to surface during Tito’s long rule. Just as truths were suppressed–the truths about which ethnic groups were and were not victims in World War II and before–so too were lies suppressed. Nothing was proved or disproved, and as a result, terrifying wars were fought on the basis of myths.

Enforced silence is an inadequate defense against prejudice and discord. A better strategy is to let everyone say what they think in a civil way. To be sure, Horowitz’s ad wasn’t especially civil, and the paper might have requested that he tone down his incendiary language. But by letting people air controversial views you at least discover who and what you’re up against, and can begin to figure out a way to bring the truth to those who need it.

All of which makes the ongoing controversy around the Daily Cal a positive event. The ad, the protests, the apology, the protests against the apology, and who knows what will come next–it amounts to a valuable debate on issues that deserve a public hearing. I learned from the controversies during my days at the Daily Cal, and enjoyed them; I hope the same holds true for the current group of besieged editors.

Just beware of the beer ads.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.