The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday February 3rd

Ombudsman: DTH Should Review First Amendment

I think I heard a giant choking sound coming from the direction of Carroll Hall on Friday morning when the journalism school occupants read the editorial page of The Daily Tar Heel.

At least that's what I hope I heard. Everyone, not just journalists, should have been gagging, choking, and downright sick to their stomachs after reading that the DTH -- the symbol of First Amendment freedom that it is -- was strongly advocating on-campus censorship. After all, if the press doesn't defend the right to free speech, who will?

For those who missed it, the issue at hand was credit cards and the fact that college kids across the country can't seem to make a mental connection between plopping down a piece of plastic and actually having to pay back the money they owe.

The end result, presumably, is a generation of well-educated young adults with a mountain of debt that starts with college loans and continues with infinitely compounded credit card bills.

What's the solution? According to the DTH, a proposed amendment to the federal Consumer Protection Act would be a step in the right direction.

The amendment would impose a ceiling on the credit limits that credit card companies offer students, preventing students from owing exorbitant amounts of money.

Were the regulation to pass, it would do some good. Broke graduates might have to beg their parents for only $10,000 to bail them out of debt rather than $20,000.

But according to the DTH edit board, the federal regulation would not be enough -- the University itself should get into the regulation game. "There are steps that UNC can take to protect its own full-time students," proposed Friday's editorial. "Banning all forms of credit card solicitation on campus" would be a "proactive step for the University. In particular, the administration should instruct Student Stores to stop placing advertisements in the bag of every shopper."

In effect, the DTH edit board is advocating that UNC eliminate all on-campus advertising of a legal product. Why? Because as the editorial says, "students are in danger of being taken advantage of," and because UNC should "do all in its power to protect the more vulnerable students here on campus."

These are troublingly paternalistic views (especially for a paper that seems sympathetic to the idea that the drinking age should be lowered or altogether abolished). But more than that, these views are curious for other reasons.

First of all, why is it that UNC students, undoubtedly some of the nation's brightest youth, need special protection from "predatory" advertisers? If UNC students are so "vulnerable," imagine how vulnerable the rest of the nation's 18-year-olds must be.

Secondly, since we're shielding impressionable UNC students from dangerous forms of speech, why stop with credit card ads. How about DTH columns? Sex education? E-mail solicitations? We wouldn't because college students have a right to have access to information about all the legal services that exist in an open marketplace.

The U.S. Supreme Court supported this position for the first time in 1976. In Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, the court ruled that "purely commercial" advertising was protected under the First Amendment. In that case, prescription drug users fought for the right of pharmacists to advertise drug prices. Just like the credit cards, the prescription drugs were legal but federally regulated.

The Board of Pharmacy argued that advertising drug prices would compromise pharmacists' integrity and harm consumers. Pharmacists would spend too much time advertising and not enough time dispensing medication, the board said.

The Supreme Court didn't buy the argument that withholding information somehow benefits consumers. "Advertising, however tasteless and excessive it sometimes may seem, is nonetheless dissemination of information as to who is producing and selling what product, for what reason, and at what price," the court said. "It is a matter of public interest that (consumer decisions) be intelligent and well informed. To this end, the free flow of commercial information is indispensable."

And so the Supreme Court finally recognized the true value of advertising. Obviously, a seller doesn't have the right to advertise anything, anywhere, anytime. For the sake of a sane campus, certain advertising restrictions must exist.

However, for the DTH to promote the censorship of all credit card advertisements on campus is absurdly anti-free speech and anti-journalistic. As UNC's pillar of free speech, the DTH should encourage the University not to limit but to add to the information students have access to.

Perhaps the University could offer students seminars, classes or online resources about using credit cards wisely and paying down personal debt.

Of course, perhaps those resources already exist ... and all that's left to do is advertise.

DTH ombudsman Josh Myerov is a second year master's student in journalism. He can be reached at jmyerov@email.

unc.edu or 918-1311.

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