Free speech advocates urge the University of Wisconsin-Superior to drop its investigation into student newspaper’s April Fools’ edition

WISCONSIN — As the the investigation into the University ofWisconsin-Superior Promethean newspaper proceeds, free speech advocates arestanding behind the student newspaper’s use of satire.

For its annual April Fools’ edition, the Promethean staffdecided to push the boundaries of modern-day stereotypes. The issue, renamedthe Pessimist, was rampant with fabricated stories and vulgarities, and drewbacklash from students and community members for its satire.

The issue included fake stories about the universityrestarting a football program, past UWS student Arnold Schwarzenegger returningto teach a class, and references to minority stereotypes. What provoked anadverse response from some upset readers were stories involving the school’slarge amount of international students — referred to as “outsourcing” — thelack of Jewish students on campus, and strategies for picking up women.

On April 6, Debbie Cheslock, a UWS graduate student and studentprogram manager at the Gender Equity Resource Center, filed a formal grievanceagainst the newspaper for its “inadequate notice of satire” and “demeaningexpressive behavior” — which prompted a supportive response from the universitycritical of the Promethean.

The university announced in a statement on April 14— which was later deleted from Facebook — that the Dean of Students’ Office is“actively investigating the grievance and working with UW System Legal toensure this issue is properly and adequately addressed.”

“We strongly condemn the offensive nature of [the AprilFools’ Day edition] of the student newspaper and encourage those responsible toapologize and take the necessary steps to ensure something like this neverhappens again,” the statement read. “It was offensive to many and contradictoryto what we, as a university, are proud to stand for. It was bad studentjournalism done in poor taste!”

Marcus White, editor-in-chief of the Promethean, said theuniversity has hardly communicated with him about the investigation, other thanemail correspondence. He said that the newspaper staff will not apologize for,or retract, its satirical work.

The Promethean editorial board issued a statement about theinvestigation today, saying that it continues to stand by its April Fools’edition as well as exercising its free press rights.

“To be inclusive means to respect the opinion and speech ofothers, regardless of its nature or source,” the statement read. “This is aliberal arts university, not a safe zone for people to have their ideascensored because others disagree with them. Some opinions offend us, othersmake us cringe, but in an inclusive environment these opinions are stillrespected.”

On April 15, UWS Assistant Director of Student InvolvementAllison Garver sent an email to White informing him that a formal grievance hadbeen filed with the Dean of Students’ office regarding the April Fools’ editionand that the office would be conducting an investigation. Garver and White arrangedto have an informal meeting on Thursday to discuss “the concern and to gatherinformation” as well as review the process for the incident.

White said after seeking legal guidance, he cancelled themeeting.

The university’s reaction drew criticism from free speechadvocates who accused UWS of disregarding its constitutional duties as a publicinstitution.

In a letter, the Foundation for Individual Rights inEducation expressed its deep concern over the university’s investigation intothe Promethean.

“Cheslock is free as a student to file such a grievance andissue these criticisms. However any formal investigation conducted by UWS intothe grievance’s allegations, and by extension the Promethean’s content,violates the publication’s constitutional rights,” the letter read. “Satire, ofcourse, may be offensive and is often intended to offend. The principle offreedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech;indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a communitymay find controversial or offensive.” 

The Student Press Law Center has contacted UWSadministrators on the student journalists’ behalf to inform them that anydisciplinary investigation into the newspaper would violate press freedom