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Ad furor shows how media filters free speech, church leader says

 


Ad furor shows how media filters free speech, church leader says

Dec. 3, 2004   

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — The refusal of CBS and NBC television networks to air a 30-second ad from the United Church of Christ calls attention to the power that major media outlets have to block free speech, said the top executive of United Methodist Communications.

The two networks have refused to run the commercial because the all-inclusive message “implies acceptance of gay and lesbian couples,” according to the United Church of Christ.

“This is not about gays and lesbians; this is about the constitutional rights of a responsible organization to exercise the freedom to speak on a medium licensed to serve the public interest,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive with United Methodist Communications, the denomination’s communication agency.

“This decision calls attention to the reality that, for self-serving reasons, corporations in control of major media are in a position to filter and even block the legitimate speech by responsible voices,” Hollon said.

In November 2003, an ad of welcoming from the United Methodist Church’s Igniting Ministry campaign was first rejected then accepted by the Reuters media company for display on a 7,000-square-foot billboard in New York City’s Times Square. Reuters rejected the ad initially on grounds that it violated the company’s policy against running religious or political advertising. Once the policy was made public, other religious groups joined to support the rights of religious organizations to speak in the public marketplace.

The ad ran from Nov. 17 to Nov. 30 on the Reuters and Instinet building with a disclaimer that the spot was “paid advertising.”

At the time, Hollon expressed disappointment in Reuters’ disclaimer requirement of “‘paid commercial advertisement,’ which is unlike any of the other advertisers on the board, signaling out our ad for distinction.”

The disclaimer placed on church advertising shows that faith-related commercials are still treated differently from other forms of commercial speech that Reuters accepts, he said.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
The Rev. Larry Hollon

“This ability to decide who can have access to major communications channels is too important to leave in the hands of a few corporate executives,” Hollon said about the United Church of Christ ad. “Broadcast licenses are granted based on serving the public interest. We have moved away from this principle. It has become virtually meaningless. Important voices are not being heard. Rather than enabling this diminished free expression, the government should be protecting it with vigilance.”

The ad states that — “like Jesus” — the United Church of Christ seeks to welcome all people, regardless of ability, age, race, economic circumstance or sexual orientation. The ad has been accepted and will air on a number of networks including ABC Family, AMC, BET, CNN, Discovery, Fox, Hallmark, History, Nick@Nite, TBS, TNT, Travel and TV Land.

The United Church of Christ made public a statement it said it received from CBS. “Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact that the executive branch has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the (CBS and UPN) networks.”
 
News reports quoted an NBC statement that the ad “violated our longstanding policy against accepting ads dealing with issues of public controversy.” ABC said it would air the advertisement on its ABC Family cable channel but not on its broadcast network.

“We have gotten support from people who have no affiliation with any church but also from many, many of our ecumenical partners such as the United Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church, Disciples of Christ and Roman Catholic,” said Barb Powell, spokesperson for the United Church of Christ. “Everyone has been very supportive and positive.”

“The reasons given by the networks for rejecting this message should bring a chill to everyone who supports freedom of religious expression because they are saying that a fundamental tenet of Christian belief is politically unacceptable for the public dialogue,” Hollon said. “The belief that God loves every person without condition is so basic to Christian teaching that if a denomination cannot make this assertion, what can it say? Such decisions shut out the Christian community from the national conversation. 

“How ironic that a gentle message of inclusion is considered unacceptable, while ads for beer are accepted, and programs in which people eat insects and worms are considered entertaining. In a divided and fearful world, this message is not only needed; it could lead to healing.”

One outcome of the controversy is that the United Church of Christ’s distribution center is taking dozens of orders each hour for identity-related orders, according to a press release from Powell.

Before the national controversy erupted, the warehouse would expect to fill only five or six identity-related orders — such as T-shirts and the like — during a typical day. Because of the explosion of attention in December, the church expects a record-shattering month of sales, said Marie Tyson, the United Church of Christ’s distribution services manager at the denomination’s warehouse in Berea, Ohio.

“We’re just coming in every day, saying, ‘How is God going to speak today?’” Tyson says. “But we’re enjoying it because we’ve never seen anything like it. Our churches are so excited, so proud.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


 

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