A racist, a bigot, a white supremacist — these are just a few of the names 18-year-old Trevor May was branded with after he penned a list titled “Top Twenty Reasons Why Obama Should Not Get Re-Elected” for the Sprayberry High School monthly student newspaper.
His true identity? A satirist.
May, who graduated last month from the Marietta, Ga., school, wrote the satirical list for The Stinger’s April 25 edition, which included a one-page April Fools’ Day insert. The insert, titled The Zinger, hosted an array of fictional, humorous articles, such as going naked to solve dress code issues and students in Advanced Placement classes being abused.
May’s column listed 20 sensationalized statements about President Barack Obama, ranging from “He’s a Nazi” and “He’s responsible for childhood obesity” to “His dog is ugly.”
May, who wrote under the name “Uncle Sam, American Extraordinaire,” said the list was intended to “poke fun at extreme conservatives” and was totally in jest. Most of the items contradicted one another, he said, adding to the exaggeration.
And while the list gained approval from May’s student newspaper classmates and his adviser, some students and parents weren’t laughing when the column hit stands. The first line was enough for most: “He’s black.”
“It didn’t even cross my mind that people would take seriously fake items out of context,” May said Monday. “I thought they would get the irony; my views are the opposite.”
The backlash started online, May said, as students and parents began flooding sites like Twitter with comments about the column the night the publication was distributed.
In retaliation, May took to Facebook, again writing “in character” as his alter ego: “Yeah, I wrote the Obama article. If you don’t agree with it then you can go to hell with that monkey man himself, there’s such a thing called free speech and I exercised my constitutional right to express it.”
One particular parent leaked the story to local media outlets, escalating the controversy, May said. After news and radio stations broadcast the story, the newspaper staff was called to the assistant principal’s office, he said, and the newspaper staff issued an apology.
“The article… was meant to be a comedic take on the media’s comments on the President,” the apology read, offering a definition of satire. “We realize that this did not come off as we intended, and we sincerely apologize for offending anyone.”
May said he told the school’s administration about his “ill-judged” Facebook post, which earned him a two-day suspension for using social media sites to disrupt school.
That probably violated May’s First Amendment rights, said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center.
“If you limit free speech to what school officials find funny, there isn’t going to be much left. No one says ‘you should become a principal because you have a great sense of humor,’” Goldstein said. “It wasn’t disruptive, it just wasn’t funny.”
Federal courts around the country have ruled schools aren’t the “Facebook police,” he said, and “there’s no reason to believe that wouldn’t be true in Georgia.”
And though Goldstein said May would have had a valid claim, May said he didn’t try to fight the punishment.
“The TV was flashing my name as a ‘racist high school student,’ so I felt like no one understood and no one would listen,” he said. “There were rumors that I wouldn’t be able to walk [at graduation], I had tons of AP tests, and I didn’t want to exhaust the energy on it.”
May still feels wronged by the incident, however.
“The thing that bothered me the most is they never tried to talk to me,” he said, noting a number of one-sided local news stories. “It’s like any creative endeavor I had was squashed because they misinterpreted it.”
May said the frenzy calmed after about two weeks, and he was able to walk at graduation. He will attend the University of Georgia in the fall, where he plans to study film studies and media production.