The joke is on these college editors — offensive April Fool's humor can backfire, badly

T.S. Eliot was right. April is the cruellest month — if you’re the editor of a college newspaper.

Like the blooming of cherry blossoms and the return of the robins, April reliably brings the painful and entirely unnecessary self-destruction of some student journalists’ careers, when attempts at April Fool’s humor go horribly wrong.

Each year, parody editions of campus newspapers push the boundaries of good taste — and occasionally, good judgment. While most result in nothing worse than groans, a few elicit gasps and “oh no they di’ints,” and this April 1 was no exception:

  • The editor of Boston University’s student newspaper agreed to resign for what she admitted was “callous and ignorant” humor in a spoof edition filled with stories about Disney characters in compromising situations, including a story suggesting the Seven Dwarves drugged and raped Snow White.
  • Fordham University’s president denounced the April Fool’s edition of The Ram as “offensive to every member of the University community” because of a mock article — “Jesuits Gone Jewish” — that contained juvenile stereotypes about Jews.
  • At the Rochester Institute of Technology, nobody lost her job, but the newspaper lost its cover. The Distorter — a parody edition of The Reporter — was reprinted at the urging of RIT administrators, who learned from the printing company that the April Fool’s issue had a profane phrase on the front page.
  • Editors at a well-regarded Penn State news blog, Onward State, found themselves apologizing (by tweet, how 21st century!) for a gallows-humor story “killing off” the writer of an infamous Onward story that prematurely pronounced legendary coach Joe Paterno dead.
  • The Maneater at the University of Missouri has already called off a 2013 April Fool’s edition, after this year’s parody (dubbed The Carpeteater) drew the ire of students and alumni. The editor issued an apology, saying she didn’t know the term has a derogatory connotation.

It’s hard to say “don’t … ever” to parody in student media, because when done well, humor can be clever and enduring (the Daily Tar Heel‘s pre-completed-in-red-pen crossword puzzle from a year ago is a personal favorite). But the damage from a joke that isn’t funny can be even more enduring.

If you absolutely must, then be smart and stay away from mockery of ethnic or religious minorities, disabled people, gays and lesbians, or other classes of vulnerable people who already may feel marginalized on campus. As for attempts at humor about sexual assault — just say no. There’s no such thing as a “hilarious” rape joke.

Humor, of course, is constitutionally protected speech — even if offensive — and the decision to pull a not-as-funny-as-we-thought newspaper or online story should always remain with the student editors. It is hard to conceive of a joke so damaging that, at a public university, it would fall outside the protection of the First Amendment.

And please … don’t take that as a challenge.