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April Fools’ Day: A little humor can spell big trouble for college newspapers

The University of Alaska-Fairbanks is planning to construct a new building in the shape of a vagina. Administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Superior are selling drugs out of a new campus meth lab in a scheme to lower tuition rates. Parking authority personnel near Rutgers University will start throwing grenades at drivers who park in the wrong location.

Don’t believe me? Good instinct.

These stories were all part of college newspapers’ satirical April Fools’ Day editions —and they all caught the critical attention of school administrators.

College publications annually push the envelope to put out gag editions poking fun at administrators, faculty, fellow students, and themselves. The result is a mixed bag of both clever criticism and jokes that don’t land, but the tradition almost always yields administrators rattling the sabres of censorship.

If the past is any indication, someone, somewhere will soon be holding a copy of their campus newspaper’s April Fools’ Day edition … and not laughing. In fact, they may be filing complaints with the school’s administration, which could lead to a prolonged investigation. Or they may go storming to their (not so) friendly campus “bias response team.”

Disturbingly, colleges have indeed launched full-fledged investigations into newspapers following satirical editions, threatening the publications with loss of funding and future oversight by content review boards. Staff members have been subjected to sensitivity training. Editors fired. Newspapers themselves confiscated.

In the name of being “inclusive” and polite, too many administrations seem willing to squelch free speech. But satire is a time-honored means of criticizing existing conditions — and it’s a protected one at that on public campuses. (Private institutions that grant students free speech rights have a duty to honor that promise, too.)  So even when it misses the mark, ruffles feathers, or upsets, the First Amendment is very clear: Satire is protected by the Constitution.

Just ask someone who helped write it.

Benjamin Franklin famously used satire to anonymously poke fun at the British Empire in London newspapers. (And though he was being serious here, this gem from Ben seems appropriate: “if all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.”)

Franklin is not the only one who, historically, has embraced the power of satire to weigh in on the day’s most important public issues. Take the ancient Roman Juvenal who, bitter and cranky, wrote biting poems criticizing Roman society. Or silent film star Charlie Chaplin who mocked Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator.” Or, more recently, comedian Melissa McCarthy who impersonated White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live.

Satire is a unique and persuasive tool. It’s one that can be particularly useful for criticizing the powerful — a form of political speech the First Amendment was specifically designed to protect. Colleges should therefore think twice before succumbing to the kneejerk reaction of shutting down this kind of commentary, especially since many widely celebrated works of satire are studied on the very same campuses. And while campus news readers may not find every attempt at satire finds its target, freedom of speech means students must have the freedom to try their hand at satirical wit and miss — or succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

If your April Fools’ edition lands your newspaper in trouble, get in touch with FIRE.

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