I'm looking now at the text of CBS's refusal to run the United Church of Christ ad and it's really astounding. It seems to me that there are two issues. First, whether they're applying their policy fairly and second, why they have such a ridiculous policy.
The memo says: "CBS/UPN Network policy precludes accepting advertising that touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance." It then goes on to say that the issue is exclusion of homosexuals and other minority groups and specifically references the president's call for a constitutional ban on gay marriage as reasons that the ad is "unacceptable."
CBS/UPN then adds the following. They "accept advertising from churches and religious organizations which deliver secular messages that are beneficial to society in general [but not] advertising that proselytizes on behalf of any single religion ... In our view, this commercial does proselytize."
The statement, however, makes clear that the first reason, rather than the second, is the reason they're rejecting the ad.
Now, let's take this in order.
Where to start? Has CBS ever run political advertising? Any political ad must by definition run afoul of their rule barring ads that take "a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance" unless they only run ads for candidates running in uncontested races.
Second, political speech is supposed to be the queen of the various sorts of speech. It is the most inherently socially valuable form of speech. And often the protection of various sorts of speech that many people find crude or distasteful is justified on the argument that one can't make hard and fast distinctions between narrowly political speech and speech which conveys broader cultural or social messages. Many theorists argue against any sort of hierarchy of different forms of speech for just these reasons -- but I'm not aware of one who argues that political speech should get the least protection. In any case, CBS's policy of excluding the most important kinds of speech seems ridiculous on its face and, as noted above, doesn't seem like a policy they can possibly be following.
And how about proselytizing? This actually seems like a marginally better argument than the one they claim is controlling. But a quick look at the ad makes that argument pretty dubious too since the ad is only prosyletizing in an extremely general sense.
We have calls in to CBS and NBC. We'll let you know what we hear.
Late Update: Has CBS ever run an anti-smoking ad? This isn't a rhetorical question but one that, again, would help show whether they're applying this rule fairly or arbitrarily. If you can think of other examples, let us know.