Are newspapers obligated to accept all political ads?

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On November 3, home subscribers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found their morning newspapers packaged in a cellophane bag that read “Defend Freedom. Defeat Obama. NRA.” (The paper, it should be noted, endorsed Obama.) The paper’s decision to allow the advertisement to run one day before the election elicited spirited responses from a Pittsburgh blog accusing the Post-Gazette of “selling out,” a defense from the local alt-weekly, and a slew of letters to the editor expressing disappointment.

This isn’t the only recent political advertisement to draw ire from readers. In September, many newspapers included a copy of “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” a DVD which featured, “among other scenes, Islamic clerics calling for jihad and crowds chanting “Death to America,” and it drew parallels between Islamic extremists and Nazi Germany, mixing footage of Nazi youth and children pledging to be suicide bombers.” The reactions ranged from cancelled subscriptions to protests outside newspaper offices.

Responding to criticism, publisher Diana Block wrote a note to readers the next day, saying that the newspaper provides an exchange of ideas, some of which may even come from paid advertising. “To stifle such discourse, or to deny a place in the discussion to those with whom we don’t agree,” Block wrote, “would inject a bias into the debate. We believe that strong, fair, vigorous debate best serves you, our readers.”

So, should the Post-Gazette have accepted the ad?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.