A paid full-page advertisement in the Friday, Sept. 17 Echo Press titled, “Please Do Not Drink the Grape Kool-Aid,” has raised questions.
We’ve received some calls from readers and a letter to the editor elsewhere on this page that criticized the newspaper for publishing something that they believe contained wild claims, misinformation and conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19, vaccines, antibodies, masks and other topics.
It’s important to point out that the Echo Press does treat paid advertising differently than a letter to the editor, with letters being edited for length, libel issues and factual content. This ad appeared on a different page than the Opinion page and was labeled as paid opinion.
A few other points: Publishing this advertisement does not mean the newspaper agrees with the writer or the content. In fact, the newspaper’s own editorials on the Opinion page during the pandemic have taken a completely opposite view of the arguments that were presented in the ad. The newspaper’s editorial board has supported the information provided by our local public health leaders and the Minnesota Department of Health throughout the pandemic. We’ve also published dozens of letters and columns from those holding opposing views.
Freedom of the press is in our country’s Bill of Rights. Our “platform” has been allowing free speech to happen in our community for more than 130 years.
Could the newspaper have declined to publish the ad? Yes. It’s rare, but we have turned down ad requests over the years if they contain libelous accusations or, in our view, contained graphic images that were beyond the pale.
In this case, there were a few reasons why the advertisement was printed, starting with First Amendment rights protected under the Constitution. Americans have a right to express their views, no matter how controversial or misleading those views may be.
A landmark libel decision, the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964, emphasized how important those rights are and how far they can reach. The words of Justice William Brennan, who wrote the ruling for the court case, still ring true today: “Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
Printing an ad with controversial statements can, at the very least, make others more aware of the thoughts and opinions others have in our area. It’s a given that the writer of the ad isn’t the only one who holds the views that were presented.
So let’s talk openly about vaccines, COVID-19, health agencies, the media’s role in reporting the pandemic, variants, government incentives and the other issues that are swirling around out there.
As Justice Brennan stated, let’s make the debate robust and wide open.