Facebook ads go to pot

Gillan Ludlow
Staff Reporter

The New York Times has long been known as the “paper of record.” When a story graces the pages of the Times, it’s news. It is also no stretch to say that within the past few years, Facebook has become the online medium of record for college students. Likewise, the term “Facebook-official” has become a familiar phrase on campus. What then happens when Facebook exercises control over what is discussed on its site?

Just Say Now is a coalition pushing the legalization of marijuana. Between August 7 and August 16, Facebook accepted and ran ads for the campaign, drawing 38 million views to the group’s page. Then, abruptly, Facebook deleted it.

The sudden censorship created a major problem for the campaign, which collects signatures on college campuses to cull support for marijuana legalization.

Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for Facebook, blamed the censorship on the group’s logo which displayed the leaf of a marijuana plant. Speaking to the Huffington Post, he said “The image of a pot leaf is classified with all smoking products and therefore is not acceptable under our policies.”

In an e-mail interview with the CT, Devon Tackels, president of VCU’s Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, questioned the validity of Facebook’s censorship. “There are so many images on Facebook profile pictures, group pictures, wall posts, et cetera that are much more offensive than a marijuana leaf,” he said. “Just wait until a ‘local singles’ ad pops up with a half-dressed woman and asks you to ‘mingle.'”

VCU Professor Jeff South points to Facebook’s concern for turning away other advertisers by running a pro-pot ad.

“I respect Facebook’s decision, as a private business, to restrict what kind of advertising it accepts,” he said in an e-mail. “The stumbling block is clearly the marijuana leaf logo. Facebook sees that logo as promoting marijuana usage. I disagree, but I respect Facebook’s right to make that determination.”

With 500 million users and counting, Facebook has an extensive influence on web-based public debate. Tackels, among other students, feels that Facebook is impinging free speech by rejecting the pre-approved advertisements.

“(Marijuana illegality) affects millions of Americans and proponents and opponents alike should be able to openly express their views using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter,” Tackels said.

According to VCU Communication Law professor Robert Dybing, however, there is no right to political speech on Facebook. “Because Facebook isn’t government-owned or sponsored,” he said, “they have the right to censor whatever they want.”

There is a tinge of irony in the way Facebook — a social media site founded on a college campus — has reacted to the legalization debate.  Marijuana is the most commonly-used illicit drug in the US. A 2007 survey by the Center for Disease Control reported that half of all college students admitted to smoking marijuana at least once.

Not all students agree with Just Say Now’s campaigns and advertisements, however.  Students like Paige Smith, a YEAR clinical exercise Science major, feel that Just Say Now shouldn’t have the right to post a marijuana leaf as their group picture because it’s against the rules.

“It says in the advertising policies that paid advertising will not support any illicit activity or illegal content,” Smith said. “If Just Say Now wants to continue campaigning for the legalization of marijuana on Facebook, they can use a different photo.”

Just Say Now is currently protesting Facebook’s decision with a Facebook petition.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply