WISCONSIN — Satirical press is once again under fire on a college campus, as the University of Wisconsin-Superior launched an investigation into its student newspaper’s April Fools’ Day edition last week.
On April 1, UWS Promethean staff published a special edition, renamed the Pessimist, rampant with fabricated stories and profanities, but some upset readers say the jokes went too far — and the university agreed.
The issue included fake stories about the university restarting a football program, past UWS student Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to teach a class, and references to several minority stereotypes on campus. But the stories involving the school’s large amount of international students referred to as “outsourcing,” the lack of Jewish students on campus, and strategies for attracting women generated the most controversy among the public.
Debbie Cheslock, a UWS graduate student and student program manager at the Gender Equity Resource Center, filed a complaint against the newspaper with the Dean of Students office — which prompted an investigation by administrators who “condemned” the issue.
In her complaint, Cheslock takes issue with the Promethean’s “inadequate notice of satire” and “demeaning expressive behavior.”
“The printed version of the paper has no direct mention of satire,” the complaint states. “Without directly expressing that the edition is satirical gives the impression that it is not, because that is what the readers have come to expect. Although it is assumed satire is obvious, satire in and of itself is supposed to be funny. Sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and derogatory ‘jokes’ against people of certain religions and/or sexual orientations are not funny.”
The complaint further states that the guarantee of the First Amendment is “to keep folks out of jail,” and that “even though there are freedoms for expression there are also consequences for inappropriate expressions.”
Cheslock told the Student Press Law Center that she was most offended by a section titled, “Sure Fire Pick-Up Lines For Those Who Lack ‘Game,’” — which listed items such as, “You must have a mirror in your back pocket, because I can see me in your pants!” and “Please tell your tits to stop looking at my eyes.” She said as a person who identifies as a woman, she finds the list hurtful, sexist and misogynistic.
Cheslock said that while she has some understanding of the First Amendment and its protections, she thinks the Promethean should apologize for irresponsible journalism that bothered its readers.
“Just because you can say something, or in this case print something, doesn’t mean you should,” she said.
After receiving backlash online from students and community members, the university issued a statement on April 14 denouncing the April Fools’ edition of the newspaper and launched an investigation into Cheslock’s formal grievance.
“We strongly condemn the offensive nature of [the April Fools’ Day edition] of the student newspaper and encourage those responsible to apologize and take the necessary steps to ensure something like this never happens again,” the statement read. “It was offensive to many and contradictory to what we, as a university, are proud to stand for. It was bad student journalism done in poor taste!”
According to the statement, the Dean of Students’ Office is “actively investigating the grievance and working with UW System Legal to ensure this issue is properly and adequately addressed.”
The Dean of Students’ Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ongoing investigation.
Cheslock said she arranged a meeting to discussion the newspaper’s use of satire, and the editors of the paper were in attendance, where she listed her demands — which were that the Promethean issue an apology and retraction, and complete a cultural competency course. Next, she will meet with the UWS Student Government Association and participate in a “Words Hurt” campaign on campus to garner support for the cause.
A retraction, however, is not in the cards for the student publication, as its staff say they stand by the edition.
“I stand by the paper I run, I stand by each and everyone of my editors and writers,” the Promethean Editor-in-Chief Marcus White said in a statement. “We have collectively published this paper today to the delight of some and the dismay of others. We publish it unapologetically in honor of the freedom of the press and to the often forgotten rights of the press guaranteed to us under the Constitution of the United States.”
White told SPLC that he published this statement before any complaint about the paper was drawn to his attention, which he said took days. He said he issued the statement shortly after the edition hit the newsstands, and the extra step to inform readers of its satirical nature was “more than enough notice.” Last year, he said, the April Fools’ Edition came with no warning, and some students and neighboring colleges thought it was real.
“I don’t know why people keep pushing for a retraction,” White said. “Retraction is not going to happen, the editorial board has made that abundantly clear.”
He said a retraction equals an apology, and the staff is not apologizing for its comedic journalism.
White said the Promethean reporters wanted to focus on absurdities in ongoing national and international current events and challenge them in the April Fools’ Day edition. He said the staff wanted people to read the issue and think, “this is crazy.”
Instead, White said he feels like students and faculty were looking for something in the paper to be offended by rather than using it to challenge real problems facing society.
White, who is Jewish, said he was especially perplexed by those who found the article describing a Jewish man who had woken up on the UWS campus without knowing how he got there offensive. He said the “derogatory term” some are saying was mentioned in the article was “Yid,” which is Yiddish for “Jew.”
“I heard that some were upset by that and thought, ‘Do you even know what that means?” he said, adding that it is a commonly used term among those of Jewish descent.
White said he does not know what will come from the investigation into the edition, but he has sought out the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
This isn’t the first time a student newspaper has been criticized for its April Fools’ Day issue.
In April 2013, for example, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Sun Star published an April Fools’ Day including a satirical article that described how the university was planning to build “a new building in the shape of a vagina.” Just three days later, a faculty member filed a sexual harassment complaint alleging that the article created a “hostile environment because it comprises sexual harassment.” The newspaper underwent a grueling investigation, and was fully exonerated after First Amendment advocates, such as FIRE, stepped in to pressure the university to uphold free press on campus.
Just last year, the student newspaper at the University of Virginia, The Cavalier Daily, issued an apology and retracted two satirical stories after public outcry that its April Fools’ Day edition contained racism. Though the independent publication does not receive any funding from the university, its editorial board felt pressured to apologize for its satire, which it described as coming “at the expense of our peers” — and UVA stood behind the apology.
“Satire has basis in reality, but it is still fabrication,” White said. “We strongly support our use of the First Amendment to publish this edition and won’t step down when someone threatens that right.”