At college newspapers across the country, there’s an annual tradition of publishing an irreverent, often-satirical edition on April Fools’ Day. And, almost every year, a college launches an investigation, or a student government freezes funding, as a result.
While schools typically back off these censorship attempts under pressure from groups like FIRE, there always seems to be at least one school every year who’s willing to learn this lesson the hard way. This year is no different, thanks to administrators at the University of Wisconsin – Superior (UW-Superior) who took issue with some April Fools’ jokes in the college paper.
This month, a graduate student’s “formal grievance,” along with local media coverage, have spurred the college to investigate the Promethean’s April Fools’ edition (PDF). The investigation’s focus includes, among various irreverent jokes, an article mocking Jewish stereotypes—written by the paper’s editor, who is Jewish, to joke about the stereotypes he encounters about his own culture.
In a letter to UWS Chancellor Renée Wachter, FIRE is calling on UWS administrators to drop their chilling investigation into the Promethean.
In addition to its April Fools’ edition—which is paid for using advertising revenue, not the student activity fees that fund its other issues—the Promethean published a statement on its Facebook page warning readers that some might be offended, and encouraging them to think about why they were offended:
Some students were offended. As the Duluth News Tribune reports:
Debbie Cheslock, a UWS graduate student and student program manager at the UWS Gender Equity Resource Center, states in her grievance that the April 1 edition didn’t have a disclaimer that it was satire, included demeaning language and statements, and that the paper’s editorial board — in a subsequent email refusing to meet with her to discuss concerns — intimidated her in an attempt to take away her freedom of speech.
“The point is that even though there are freedoms for expression, there are also consequences for inappropriate expressions. There are real consequences for everything that we do, and it is unfortunate that the Promethean’s staff and faculty adviser chose a path of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and other demeaning actions…,” Cheslock wrote in her grievance. “Offending people in protected classes in the name of satire is not free from consequences, nor should it ever be.”
In a Facebook post, UWS distanced itself from the Promethean, asserting that UWS “will not tolerate any form of disrespect,” and announced that it was “actively investigating” the “formal grievance filed against the student newspaper”:
[Update, April 21, 2016 at 1:15 p.m.: Shortly after this post went up, UWS deleted its Facebook post. Here’s a screenshot of what it looked like before it was deleted, and here’s a screenshot of the comments.]
In the comments to its Facebook post, UWS attempted to draw a line about what publications it will “tolerate”:
We have heard from many people, including the media, who are appalled but what was in paper and say it reflects very poorly on our school. This was more than just satire missing the mark. As we’ve said consistently, this was unethical and unprofessional journalism and contradicts the very values of our school. Satire is fine, having a difference of opinion is fine, but disrespectful and offensive language is not fine.
Entering into the foray of satire and irreverence is risky territory for student newspapers. It doesn’t always hit the mark, and regardless of whether it does or not, it can be a lightning-rod for criticism.
Regardless, as one former Promethean editor observes, students must be free to hit or miss the mark:
Sure, the paper needs to take its lumps here and eat the criticism. I hope the students have plans to follow up the joke edition with a string of great stories that illustrate what’s really happening on the UWS campus. But those students also need some room to fail. You don’t learn comedy by telling good jokes. You learn it by telling bad ones until you figure out what good is. I don’t agree with doing April Fool’s editions, but the editors here decided they would run one. They need to face the consequences on their own so they can learn. It’s how I learned. It’s how I continue to learn.
The possibility of investigations and official sanctions is not one of the risks students should have to weigh when considering whether to try their hand at satire. By suggesting that jokes the UWS administration perceives to be in poor taste will subject students to an “active investigation”—meaning, of course, that some action may yet be taken—UWS sends a message to its students that they shouldn’t try to be creative in ways that might offend. As the renowned satirist Tom Lehrer put it, “You can’t be satirical and not be offensive to somebody.”
As a public institution, UWS is unquestionably bound by the First Amendment. Speech—including satire—is not excluded from the First Amendment’s protections simply because it’s offensive.
The proper remedy for those who find the Promethean’s April Fools’ edition offensive is, of course, more speech. UWS has criticized the paper, on both its own Facebook page and in local media, and has encouraged others to contact the newspaper themselves. The newspaper’s staff has attended a public discussion—organized by the graduate student who filed a grievance with UWS—and solicited critical letters to the editor. The controversy has sparked pieces criticizing and defending the Promethean, and some faculty members in UWS’ Communicating Arts Department passed a resolution in support of the Promethean’s rights. That’s the remedy of “more speech” at work.
But in announcing an “investigation,” while simultaneously promoting “open dialogue,” UWS contradicts itself. It cannot have open dialogue while announcing to the conversation’s participants that some of them are under investigation for their protected speech. That only deters members of the community from having a frank and open discussion. And as the University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents observed in a resolution just last December:
Exploration, deliberation, and debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community (or those outside the community) to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the university community, not for the institution itself, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress exploration of ideas or expression of speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the university community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of each institution’s educational mission.
That’s why FIRE sent a letter yesterday calling on UWS to drop its investigation into the Promethean. It’s the role of UWS students to discuss the content of the paper, not the role of the institution to “investigate” it.