Ad sparks heated debate on free speech at Hopkins

December 07, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Anybody who thinks the Johns Hopkins University is a dull school should have been around the Northeast Baltimore campus in early November, when the issues of free speech and ethnicity came to a head in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

Some background might provide a bit of clarity. The News-Letter editorial board is predominantly Jewish. One Andrew Pergam - 20, Jewish, business editor of the News-Letter and possibly a future columnist, if his essays in my opinion-writing class are any indication - takes an ad to Douglas Steinke, also Jewish and one of two editors in chief for the paper. The ad reads:

"Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH) offers $50,000 to the one individual instrumental in arranging a 90-minute presentation on National Network Television, in prime time, of the 'Video of the Century,' our documentary on Auschwitz. I This authentic documentary, not a Hollywood movie, written and directed by the Jewish scholar David Cole, takes you inside the disputed Auschwitz 'gas chamber... ' Over the past decades there have been thousands of hours of unanswered Holocaust allegations broadcast to the American people. Is it not fair that those of us who do not believe the 'gas chamber' stories should be allowed 90 minutes - only 90 minutes! - to report the other side of the issue?"

CODOH's ad might come as a shock to those of you who find the notion that there might be pros and cons about the Holocaust appalling. But Steinke made the decision to run the ad in the Nov. 6 issue of the News-Letter. Pergam supported him.

"I think it was the fair thing to do," said Pergam. "I've been brought up to do what's fair." Was he concerned that Jews might find the ad offensive?

"Neither the ad nor anything in it was explicitly offensive," Pergam answered. "It didn't have any language about hating Jews or say the Holocaust didn't happen."

To understate the matter considerably, Rachel Siegel, a 19-year-old sophomore who is one of two events editors for the News-Letter, disagreed.

"No one else on the editorial staff was in on the decision as to whether the ad should run," said Siegel, who is also Jewish and another possible future columnist. "When I saw it in print, I was very angered. I thought it promoted revisionist history."

Just what is the history CODOH promotes? Juliet Risner, a News-Letter copy editor, wrote a scathing indictment in the Nov. 13 issue of the decision to run the ad. Siegel said Risner expressed many of her sentiments. Both of them accessed the CODOH web site, the address of which was in the ad.

"The CODOH home page," Risner wrote, "credited to Bradley R. Smith et al., claims that millions of European Jews were not systemically killed during WWII ('we no longer believe the gas chamber stories I or the genocide theory I ') but, instead, died of typhus and other diseases. Smith bases all of his conclusions on his own experience within the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., where he claims there is no 'proof that even one individual was gassed in a German program of genocide.'" The CODOH ad was "a disregard for the testimony of Jewish survivors [and] a direct attack on the intelligence and credibility of the Jewish people," Risner continued. She concluded by saying the News-Letter had taken money from "a vile organization."

Siegel said she and Pergam are good friends, but he has opened up a nasty can of worms with the CODOH ad.

"This puts Andy in a very awkward position," Siegel claimed. "Now he has to accept anything that comes in. A KKK ad slurring blacks and suggesting they return to Africa now has to be run. We are now on a slippery slope."

Steinke disagrees.

"I wouldn't say we're obligated to take ads from any crackpot," he said. "There are limits. If there had been hate speech or swastikas in the ad, it wouldn't have run. I think any organization that has a point of view should have their ad run in the paper. xTC don't think it's our job to discriminate based on what's in an ad."

Two News-Letter columnists went head-to-head in the Nov. 13 issue. Edward Wipper charged that the editors "at best display [ed] a blatant inability to exercise sound judgment and at worst malice and the type of pernicious behavior worthy of hatemongers. This decision will and should haunt them for a long time."

Allan Massie countered: "Our Constitution protects the right to free expression precisely because no one - absolutely no one - can have the right to decide what ideas others should see and hear."

And so the debate as old as the Republic rages - on a campus that, whatever else it may be, surely isn't dull.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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