Student newspaper at U. of Virginia removes April Fools’ Day stories students decried as racist

VIRGINIA — The student newspaper at the University of Virginia issued an apology and pulled two satirical stories from its website Wednesday after students complained the stories were racist — one of which parodied a student’s violent arrest by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents two weeks ago.

“The April Fools edition is meant to start a conversation and provide satirical commentary on important issues,” according to The Cavalier Daily Managing Board’s apology. “The April Fools edition is not meant to come at the expense of our peers. We neglected to foresee that these pieces would come across as the latter, and for that, we regret their publication.”

The Black Student Alliance at UVA, which advocates for cultural, social and political awareness for the black community, criticized the issue’s front-page article “ABC agents tackle Native American Student outside Bodo’s Bagels,” arguing it marginalized Native American students and made light of UVA student Martese Johnson’s arrest.

Virginia State Police launched an investigation after a video showing Johnson’s bloodied face went viral online — calling into question the agents’ use of force.

The story used stereotypical names for its Native American characters: “Dances with Wolves,” “Rabbit in the Grass” and “Insect Humming.” It also satirized campus protests over racially motivated police brutality.

“The protesters marched from the Amphitheater to Madison Bowl, chanting ‘we were here first’ and holding signs, including ‘New World, Same Racism,’ ‘We will Sioux you,’ ‘Police should arrest all colors of the wind’ and ‘This is Sitting Bull-shit,’” according to the article.

BSA also denounced the story “Zeta Psi hosts ‘Rosa Parks party,’” which mocked campus fraternities’ racially themed parties, for its insensitivity, including its subhead, “Everybody move to the back of the bus.”

“In one fell swoop, The Cavalier Daily has made a mockery of both past and present struggles for equality and justice,” according to a post on the Black Student Alliance’s Facebook page.

The managing board said the apology will also run in The Cavalier Daily’s next print edition and members of the editorial staff are “in the process of personally reaching out to affected communities to issue apologies.”

Despite criticism on social media, other parody articles, including one satirizing the paper’s first all-female managing board for their “matched up” menstrual cycles and “constant crying,” and another that mocks campus cafeteria staff, remain online.

The Cavalier Daily is an independent publication, and does not receive any funding from UVA, university spokesman Anthony DeBruyn said, adding that the university stood behind Wednesday’s apology as appropriate.

April Fools’ Day issues have become a tradition at student newspapers across the country. But controversies over their satirical articles often extend beyond the last laugh.

For example, in 2013 a student newspaper at the University of Alaska Fairbanks ran a satirical story and an accompanying graphic about a campus building being built “in the shape of a vagina” designed to honor the institution’s female students. A second story addressed comments on a “UAF Confessions” Facebook page.

In response, a sociology professor filed sexual harassment complaints against the newspaper and against the university for failing to respond. Nearly a year later, an outside investigation determined the First Amendment protected the satire.

One staple of April Fools’ Day is offensive humor that backfires on its authors; another is humor just plausible enough to be mistaken for actual news. When Vanity Fair reported last week that actress Emma Watson planned to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, the magazine later announced it had cited The Daily Pennsylvanian’s annual joke issue for the story.

But one student newspaper — The Post at Ohio University — decided it would not publish the annual satirical “Pest” this year. Editor-in-Chief Jim Ryan wrote in an editorial that top editors chose to scrap the tradition because they believed it was inappropriate for reporters to parody the issues they cover.

“Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon, or maybe I take The Post too seriously,” Ryan wrote. “But I’m not a fan of ‘The Pest’ and am glad our staff focused on reporting the news instead of offering a satirical take on it.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6318.