Corporate behemoths come up small in their steadfastopposition to free and open debate

If you share the view - expressed in the May 13 column - that activists (and the California Supreme Court) are wrong to deny Nike First Amendment protection when it comes to explaining social policies, join me here in condemning ExxonMobil and Viacom, two large corporations that have shown an equal disdain for free, open discussion.

If you share the view - expressed in the May 13 column - that activists (and the California Supreme Court) are wrong to deny Nike First Amendment protection when it comes to explaining social policies, join me here in condemning ExxonMobil and Viacom, two large corporations that have shown an equal disdain for free, open discussion.

If you believe in PR, it seems to me, you believe that differences of opinion should be settled in free and open debate, that all views should be aired, and that no one should be denied access to the mass media necessary to communicate opinions to a broad audience. If you believe in PR, the right of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club to express themselves is just as important as the rights of Nike.

Greenpeace is being sued by ExxonMobil, a company that resolutely refuses to learn from past PR errors, for infringing on the company's logo. ExxonMobil is angry because Greenpeace is running a Stop Edollars dollars O campaign, replacing the letter S with dollar signs. The company also claims Greenpeace is trying to draw a connection between Esso and "the infamous SS, saying the doctored image looks like the Nazi symbol.

In the US, this action would be laughed out of court. The right to satirize the rich and famous - corporations included - is enshrined in the Constitution.

(That hasn't stopped companies using the pretext of copyright infringement as the basis for lawsuits designed to intimidate their critics into silence, a tactic that often works with individuals, but would be futile with a group like Greenpeace.)

The Sierra Club, meanwhile, has been told by Viacom that one of the ads in its new campaign is unacceptable because of an implied criticism of Ford Motor Company. The ad suggests viewers ask dealers for cars with eco-friendly features such as continuously variable transmissions and integrated starter generators. They conclude by asking CEO Bill Ford "to do his part to produce more fuel-efficient cars, SUVs, and pick-up trucks."

Viacom says the fact that Ford is a big advertiser is a coincidence, and the ad was banned because "we felt it inappropriate for the Sierra Club to single out an individual in the ad. But the Sierra Club's reference to Ford is a good deal gentler than the references to competing automakers that appear every night on my TV screen, suggesting a huge double standard.

It's pretty obvious the Sierra Club is being singled out because it's a consumer group rather than a large corporation.

A key difference between these cases and Nike is that neither of these feature government censorship. But both provide insight into why activists feel the current playing field is not level - and therefore why using the courts to muzzle companies like Nike is acceptable as a means to a just end.

- Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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