The Holocaust Historiography Project

Ad poses problems for school newspapers

On October 24, 1991, a full-page ad in the University of Michigan’s (Ann Arbor) Michigan Daily newspaper provoked an enormous uproar on campus and off. The ad, entitled “The Holocaust Controversy: The Case for Open Debate,” challenges the orthodox view of the Holocaust and calls for a reappraisal of the evidence.

In the weeks since its first appearance, the ad has appeared in student papers at Duke University (Durham, NC), Northeastern Illinois University (Dekalb), Cornell University (Ithaca, NY), Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ), and others, each time being met with protest demonstrations, letters, statements, and guest columns.

Because of the controversy, other student papers, including those at Yale, Harvard, Brown, and the universities of Boston, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Texas-Austin, California-Los Angeles, and UC-Berkeley, declined to run the ad.

Whether or not the ad, which was placed by the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH), generates any discussion about the Holocaust, it has certainly sparked discussions about what topics are and are not considered appropriate.

On one side, Bradley Smith of CODOH claims that the Holocaust is a historical event and should be subject to the same rigorous examination accorded any other historical topic. Smith also claims to be concerned about the First Amendment issues surrounding what he calls suppression of open debate about this often emotional topic.

Opposing Smith are those who point out that freedom of speech is not applicable to the college campus, thus bringing Smith’s ad squarely up against the movement for “politically correct” speech. Representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith have also called for Smith and his ads to be censored.

Further complicating the matter are attempts to protect free speech on campus, such as Rep. Henry Hyde’s (R-Ill.) Collegiate Speech Protection Act of 1991. This act seeks to ban speech codes at private colleges, thus bringing them in line with public colleges, which must observe the First Amendment.

At its core, the issue comes down to the age-old question of whether students are better served by being nurtured in a controlled environment, or by being exposed to the chaos of the free marketplace of ideas. Are college students mature enough to make up their own minds, or are they still gullible and in need of protection?

Whatever the answer, the collision between those who favor freedom of expression and those who favor a “kinder, gentler” society is sure to generate controversy in the years ahead.