Craigslist controversy underscores balancing act of leadership

By On Leadership
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Marty Linsky, a co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates, teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School. He blogs at Linsky on Leadership.

Leadership is contextual, not binary. What makes leadership difficult is that it requires choosing between deeply held values that are in conflict.

Presumably, Newmark believes in an open Internet and in curbing the sexual exploitation of teenage girls. Without being cynical, but being realistic, I would suggest that for Newmark, keeping Craigslist alive and thriving would be a higher value than either of the other two in almost all imaginable circumstances (see, for example, Google and China). Sacrificing your body for the cause is sometimes, but rarely, necessary. Noble defeat, more commonly called martyrdom, is sometimes required but is not the only way leadership can be manifested.

Leadership also requires you to be committed to your cause, here freedom of expression, and at the same time be open to the possibility that there is a better idea out there.

Newmark saw the handwriting on the wall. He was not willing to risk sacrificing the franchise on the altar of freedom to advertise sexual exploitation. Good for him.

And good for the activists who were smart and skillful enough to raise the heat and force him to make a choice he would have preferred to avoid. They, not Newmark, exercised the real leadership here.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is a professor of organizational behavior at the graduate school of business, Stanford University.

Craig Newmark and his colleagues are doing the right thing in trying to stick by their ideals. From everything I've read, the law is quite clear: Publishers of advertising content are not responsible for all the legal implications of the content they publish. Moreover, the efforts to crack down on Craigslist won't be successful in accomplishing the intended objectives. Telephone directories run advertisements for escort services, some of which are undoubtedly fronts for prostitution. Papers run personal ads, and I doubt if they check to be sure the ads aren't being used to sell illegal products or services. The principle that Newmark is fighting for is essential for free speech and the operation of the Internet.

As Newmark and others have noted, even if and when the adult-services section is closed (as it has been temporarily with the word "censored") the ads will move to other sections of the site or to other sites. Policing should be left to the police and not be the responsibility of companies that lack the resources and expertise to do the task.

Kathryn Kolbert, a public-interest lawyer and journalist, is the director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College.

The larger decision about whether Craigslist should or should not accept these types of ads is not really a First Amendment question, but rather a business decision that must balance the revenue boon against concerns raised by some consumers that the ads are morally offensive to them and will thus stop doing business with the site. Will continuation of the ads tarnish the brand to the detriment of its future business operations?

In the early days of "alternative newspapers," the Village Voice and other papers faced similar attacks but today freely publish personal ads. Although some argue that these ads facilitate prostitution and casual sex and undermine journalistic expertise, it is hard to see any evidence of that. Once the election season is over, it is doubtful anyone but the most ardent will care about Craigslist's personal ads.

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