Student journalists at twoprivate Pennsylvania universities came under fire this month after publishingApril Fools’ Day editions that offended their readers.
After a studentnewspaper at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh published its annual AprilFools’ Day edition, which included a cartoon depicting one character uttering aracial slur, university president Jared Cohon established a commission to reviewthe content of the paper to determine whether the school should takedisciplinary action against the newspaper staff.
Each year TheTartan publishes a spoof edition called The Natrat on April 1. Inthis year’s edition, a character in a cartoon expressed approval of a blackperson being hit by a bicycle. The paper also included “poems about raping ateacher and mutilating a woman with an ice skate, and a graphic illustration offemale genitalia,” according to an April 4 article in The PittsburghPost-Gazette .
Cohon released a statement calling the cartoon andmuch of the edition “horrible” and “offensive.”
“It pains me, therefore,that we have students here who would conceive of and publish such a thing, whocould possibly believe something like this was funny or ironic, or who don’tduly assume the full thrust of responsibility that they have as leaders of astudent newspaper,” the statement said.
The newspaper staff decided notto publish for the rest of the academic year, and Alex Meseguer, editor in chiefof the paper, fired the cartoonist who drew the cartoon, proposed hiring an”ethics manager” to serve as an ombudsman and suggested that the newspaper forma “content review board” made up of administrators who would review the”accuracy, relevancy and effect on the campus of future editions,” according tothe Post-Gazette article.
Meseguer was quoted in thePost-Gazette as saying, “ The Tartan has committed a grave error, onethat threatens our mission, our members and our very existence.” Meseguer saidprinting the cartoon was accidental because fatigue impaired hisjudgment.
Meseguer did not respond to requests forcomment.
Similar complaints about an April Fools’ Day edition at theUniversity of Scranton caused the administration to shut down the studentnewspaper, The Aquinas.
According to an article in the April 5edition of The Scranton Times Tribune, the spoof edition of TheAquinas included a “fictitious reference to a priest caught fooling aroundwith a woman during the screening of The Passion of the Christ,” as wellas a cartoon take on MTV’s Celebrity Death Match between the former andcurrent university president.
Vincent Carilli, vice president for studentaffairs, accepted the publication board’s recommendation to shut down the paper.The university also changed the locks on the doors of the newspaper office,removed all remaining copies of the April Fools’ Day edition from campus andfired the editor in chief.
“The Aquinas must develop and publish astatement of ethics prior to resumption of publication,” Carilli said in astatement released to the university community.
Carilli is also creatinga list of requirements the paper must fulfill before he will allow the paper topublish again.
Unlike public universities, private universities are notbound by the First Amendment to guarantee students’ free-speech rights. However,Pennsylvania courts have ruled that the state constitution may limit the abilityof even private schools to engage in certain kinds of censorship.
“Idon’t think censorship should play a part in any institute of higher learning,”said Joshua Stewart, managing editor of The Aquinas. “Freedom ofexpression is pretty much what makes our nation work and shutting it down isjust contrary to the exchange of ideas, which is supposedly what all educationis supposed to be about.”
Stewart said newspaper staff members have notheard from the university about when they will be able to printagain.
Zaboski said that though the university has the right toinvestigate student behavior for possible disciplinary proceedings, “we have notin this case initiated any action at this time.”
SPLC View: Forjournalistic, practical and legal reasons, the SPLC has long advised studentnewspapers against publishing April Fools’ Day editions in place of theirregular publication that confuse and offend readers. But we also believe thatthe right to determine content should remain in the hands of student editors andthat even offensive expression must be protected from censorship. Humor is hardwork, and even unsuccessful efforts can teach student journalists importantlessons about the responsibility that comes with press freedom.