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Dismayed to see another full-page ad for handguns in the Valley Courier this week, I called the publisher, Robyn Wolcott, directly. We had an informative, respectful conversation. She explained that she takes her orders from the parent company, located in New London, and that its position is that if a company has a legal product and pays taxes, it can advertise in the newspaper. They referenced it under First Amendment (freedom of speech) rights.
Talk of First Amendment rights notwithstanding, a privately held company can accept or reject ads; it is not bound to run all ads submitted. My personal feeling is that if the bottom line of the parent company were adversely affected, its declaration of First Amendment principles would likely be less intransigent.
Members of the community that the Valley Courier serves have First Amendment rights, too, and so I am speaking out. I have no objection to ads for hunting rifles and hunting shotguns. Hunting is an honest way to get meat. I used to raise chickens and two pigs each year, and butcher them, too. I think that if you eat meat, you should have the nerve to kill it yourself. But I do object to advertisements that feature guns whose purpose is to kill people, as handguns are. These ads exploit the fear people feel today: You are not safe, so buy a gun. Hardly a community-building message and therefore hardly fit for a community newspaper.
Remember, selling guns is a business, and marketing/advertising is the “art and science of persuasion.” Do we want to be persuaded—through handgun ads in our local newspaper—that we need a gun to feel safe in our community? Or would we rather focus our energies on living in a community that embraces conversation, respect, and empathy?
Editor’s note: While I suspect that for most readers, the decision to accept firearms advertising, which the Courier has done since its start, would be quite simple (“Of course!” or “Of course not!”), it for us has been and remains a far more complicated decision that calls on us to examine our mission in the communities we serve. While we at the Courier regularly review our advertising policy and that review will continue, after this latest round of complaints regarding the ad campaign referenced above, our parent company The Day of New London determined we should continue to accept firearms advertising.
From the calls and emails we have recently received, gun advertising is clearly offensive or otherwise objectionable to many of our readers. Using one’s perception of offensiveness might appear to be a very common-sense metric to determine an ad’s suitability for publication, though taken to its fullest, eliminating content offensive to some readers would leave little or nothing to publish. Use of common sense also relies on a set of common values.
From our 17 years of covering this region, we have found there is no clear reader consensus that guns or gun advertising are unethical or inappropriate. When drawing a line on what items are suitable for publication, as a news organization we lean toward protecting free speech, including some potentially offensive speech.
In the end, the decision to run a particular ad isn’t dictated by profit motive or the very real possibility that our decision to run an ad may hurt overall profit, but rather by our view of our role as a community news organization, which is to present, through news and advertising, a complete picture of the communities we serve.
The First Amendment guarantees neither the right of a business to advertise in this paper nor a reader to have a letter published, but we choose to accept both (within limits) under our interpretation of the spirit of the First Amendment, which is to protect freedom of expression.
We don’t expect that all readers, advertisers, or staff members will be satisfied by this policy, but we hope they can appreciate and share our respect for the role of the paper to provide a forum for free speech and expression for local readers and businesses. — Brian Boyd, editor
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