Civil discourse, Part II

June 2, 2009

In January, this space discussed the concept of civil discourse – public debate and discussion in the opinion and letters section of Episcopal Life Online and Episcopal Life. Under the principle that truth rises from many voices, Episcopal Life Media (the umbrella name for the paper and electronic publications) accepts expressions of a wide range of viewpoints, subject to certain conditions.

Opinions are expressed in another area: advertising. Episcopal Life Media's advertising guidelines do not prohibit advertisements that advance a theological, social or political point of view. They say that advertising must be consistent with the mission statement of the publication and the policies of General Convention.

The publication will not accept advertising for tobacco, alcoholic beverages (other than Communion wine) or products related to illegal drugs.

It will not accept advertising that encourages individuals to leave the Episcopal Church or that contains personal attacks. The guidelines also say Episcopal Life Media will not accept advertising that is illegal, fraudulent or offensive.

When it comes to expressing a political stance, the last word in that sentence presents a rather large scope for varying opinions. One man or woman's "outrageous rant" is another's "strongly worded but reasonable point of view." Defining what is offensive is like the apocryphal quote about art: "I don't know what it is, but I know what I like."

Being willing to pay for space doesn't automatically grant one the right to have it, but some principles of free speech apply in deciding which ads to accept. A quote often attributed to Voltaire refers to defending "to the death" the right of free speech. He did actually write, with typical Gallic flair: "Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write."

Advertising with a point of view can start or advance a discussion or debate. In the Episcopal context, one is reminded of the words in the first article of the church constitution noting that, at General Convention, "in all deliberations freedom of debate shall be allowed."

There are, of course, limits on free speech such as libel or slander, but if we err, it must be in leaning toward that freedom precisely because opinions that make us uncomfortable can shake up a long-held point of view, ultimately making us think and reexamine cherished assumptions.

Episcopal Life Media is not the only publisher that reviews the kinds of ads it will accept. Readers of religious publications have criticized ads seeking the recruitment of military chaplains and supporting anti-abortion views.

Ads that fall within guidelines nevertheless may seem silly or appeal to superstition.

Episcopal Life could ban all advocacy advertisements or accept only ads that hew closely to official church policy or only allow ads that it judges would be agreeable to the majority of church members.

The first and second of these choices would produce a bland advertising landscape while limiting the free expression of legitimate ideas, something that in itself contravenes official church policy, if those words from the constitution have real weight.

The third choice sounds rational but is, of course, impossible. One reason for the constitution's instruction is that the 1,000 or so voting members of convention will not all think the same way on anything.

Like it or not, the church is in the thick of life, in the places where humanity suffers its greatest loss and most intense joy. Vigorous engagement produces strong opinions. Let's talk.

Related Topics: