April Fools' spoof leads to temporary shutdown of student paper's Web site

MINNESOTA –The online April Fools’ Day edition of Hamline University’s studentnewspaper upset alumni and people affiliated with the Navy SEALs, which resultedin university officials temporarily shutting down the site lastweek.

Every year around April Fools’ Day, The Oracle becomesThe rhetOracle, featuring satirical andfarcical news stories. The print version has the prefix ”rhet” infront of the paper’s title to let readers know it is not a regular editionof the paper, said Melissa Nieting, co-editor ofThe Oracle.

HamlineUniversity President Linda Hanson was portrayed as a former Navy SEAL andAmerican Gladiator in an article inThe rhetOracle. The article made it toa Navy SEALs e-mail discussion list, Nieting said.

Thereweren’t any disclaimers on the online version of the paper, which leftMedia Relations Director JacQueline Getty bombarded with phone calls and e-mailscomplaining about the story, Getty said.

”I got calls frompeople saying, this is unfactual and this is printed on your Web site?”

Getty said. ”These stories are popping up as news stories on Google alertsand it doesn’t take you to the main page, it takes you to the specificstory.”

The paper’s site is hosted on HamlineUniversity’s domain.

Getty fielded calls for an hour themorning the story was published before she contacted Editor in Chief Matt Lutz,leaving him messages and visiting the paper’s office twice, she said. Byapproximately 10 a.m. she received an e-mail from Lutz saying that the paperwould update its site identifying the issue as a ”mock issue,” Gettysaid. But by 12:45 p.m. no disclaimers had been put up.

”Whenno adjustments had been made, I walked over to their office and let them know wewere taking the page off of the university site,” Gettysaid.

Nieting said that the staff was waiting on its Web editor toget out of class so that he could update the site with thedisclaimers.

The editors admitted it was mistake not to label theissue online as a gag, but Nieting said that in the three years she has been atthe paper they have never done so and never had anyproblems.

”This is such a long tradition at Hamline, everyoneknows it’s a joke,” she said. ”The stories are so obviouslyfarcical and satirical.”

Nieting also accused universityofficials of pandering to the concerns of alumni and tending to theuniversity’s image instead of putting its students first.

Gettysaid the university was just covering its back to avoid potential libel issuesand misinformation since the site is hosted on the university’sdomain.

”The last thing we wanted to do was pull them off ourWeb site,” Getty said. ”We know there was no malice meant by thesestories.”

After the site was shut down, Lutz and Nietingmet with university officials. In the meeting, Nieting said thatadministrators strongly hinted that the paper should stop publishing

The rhetOracle. But Nieting said thatthe annual April Fools’ Day issue is a tradition and something that thestaff looks forward to every year.

”It’s kind of a wayfor us to sort of unwind,” she said. ”It’s sort of a catharsisfor us.”

After the meeting, university officials submitted thearticles with the disclaimers to legal counsel for evaluation. By nextafternoon, with the legal counsel’s approval, the paper’s site wasback up with a disclaimer above each article.

The best way for anonline college paper to protect itself from administrative interference is toavoid being on the same site as the university, said Robert Niles, editor of theUniversity of Southern California’s Online JournalismReview.

”If university officials have no access to the server,it becomes next to impossible for them to physically take down yourcontent,” Niles said. ”School papers give up some of thatindependence if they allow their Web sites to be published on universityservers.”

Nieting said that the paper is looking into gettingits own domain in the near future. Getty said university administrators would beopen to the paper separating from the university’s Website.