Princeton newspaper’s joke issue draws attention, possible legal action

NEW JERSEY — The student newspaper at Princeton University has landed itself in hot water after publishing a joke issue that has earned some indignation from readers, including potential legal action from one of the targets of its lampooning.

The Daily Princetonian spoof issue, published Jan. 17 under the banner The Gaily Printsanything, included an article that described a romantic tryst between Professor Robert George and a gay prostitute.

After the satirical issue came under fire for multiple articles, George told The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this week that he has consulted an attorney.

“I have the matter under review with a lawyer,” he told the Inquirer. “I certainly do not want to do anything that harms Princeton University, which has been an extremely congenial home to me.”

The newspaper’s spoof issue earned disapproval from the Princeton campus community and caught fire in the media, with coverage from The New York Times and The Associated Press.

However, much of the criticism The Daily Princetonian has faced stems largely from another article — one that caricatures an Asian applicant who filed a civil rights complaint against the university after he was rejected. With broken English, references to racial stereotypes and what one letter to the editor called “underlying hate,” the column lambastes the university. The byline of the column, Lian Ji, closely resembles the name of the applicant who filed the complaint, Jian Li.

Chanakya Sethi, the newspaper’s editor in chief, said Saturday that he understood why some people were angered by the article and he hoped the controversy would stir dialogue on campus, according to the AP.

“There are honest differences about what is humorous and what is not, and it was a regrettable mistake to think everyone would see the column as we do,” he said, according to the AP article.

If George does file a libel claim against the newspaper, New Jersey has a legal precedent on the books. In 1988 a New Jersey state court found in Walko v. Kean College of New Jersey that obvious satirical content is not libelous. Three years earlier the student newspaper at Kean College published a spoof edition that included a parody advertisement for a phone sex hotline that was described as being staffed by various campus administrators, one of whom filed a lawsuit claiming libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Because the publication contained no serious material and was “unquestionably a parody,” the New Jersey Superior Court ruled in favor of the student newspaper and rejected the claim.

“A parody or spoof that no reasonable person would read as a factual statement, or as anything other than a joke — albeit a bad joke — cannot be actionable as a defamation,” the court’s ruling stated.

The spoof published by the Princeton newspaper included disclaimers in its online edition that read, “This article is a part of The Daily Princetonian‘s annual joke issue. Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Despite the legal precedent, students who publish spoof editions are not wholly immune from repercussions, such as disfavor with readers.

“People see it as journalistically questionable,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “It’s hard to justify skipping a day of real news.”

Goodman said he would advise a newspaper creating a spoof edition to be careful to comply with standards of journalism.

“One of the things we’d encourage a publication to do is make it immediately obvious that the content is intended to be satirical,” he said. He added that some publications might be tempted to make the satire subtle. “The danger of that is some people might not get the joke.”

George did not return phone calls from the SPLC.

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer