Md. student editors defuse tension over ad

Anti-reparations postings stirred protests elsewhere

May 02, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

An advertisement opposing reparations for slavery that has caused major upheavals on campuses across the country has run in Maryland student newspapers without much fuss.

"I am proud of our students, I really am," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where the weekly paper, the Retriever, ran the ad last week.

"There are some students that are very upset about it, but they are willing to listen to different points of view and take a reasonable approach to dealing with the issue," he said.

The ad, which will be the focus of a campus forum at UMBC tonight at 7 in the ballroom of the University Center, was placed by conservative author David Horowitz. It resulted in raucous protests and stolen newspapers when it appeared in newspapers on campuses in California and at Brown University in Rhode Island.

But at UMBC and at the University of Maryland, College Park -- where the Diamondback ran it earlier in April -- student editors were credited with defusing tensions by discussing the issue with various groups on campus before the ad appeared and explaining their decision clearly in their newspapers on the day it was published.

"We let as many people know as we could beforehand," said Jennifer Schildroth, editor of the Retriever, who held the ad for two weeks to allow time for the discussions. "We wanted them to know that we weren't going for shock value."

In the Retriever and the Diamondback, the ad -- which calls reparations racist and says welfare payments and affirmative action have already transferred wealth to African-Americans -- was accompanied by a front-page editorial explaining the decision.

"We weighed the pros and cons and spoke with campus community members and journalists, both academics and professionals," said Matthew Sheehan, editor of the Diamondback, on his decision to run the ad. "We thought it came down to a free-speech issue."

The dilemma became the subject of a journalism class taught by Gene Roberts on managing a newsroom, which Sheehan takes.

"We mixed it up in the classroom and after they kicked it around, I told them what I thought," said Roberts, former managing editor of the New York Times and former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I said that free expression is important to our society, and if newspapers don't stand up for it, who will?" he said. "I think society is healthier if thorny subjects are debated rather than being swept under the rug."

Schildroth said she was disappointed with the response to the ad.

"We only received one letter to the editor about it," she said. "We encouraged people to write in."

But UMBC's director of student life, Patty Perillo, said the ad has been a major topic on campus.

"I was walking through the University Center when many students were reading it for the first time," Perillo said. "For many, it caused discomfort, anger, pain, a disbelief that their peers would actually agree to do something like this."

But Perillo, who advised Schildroth during the weeks before the ad appeared, said that overall it has had a positive impact on campus.

"It has been a pretty phenomenal learning experience for students and student leaders," she said.

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