No laughing matter: College comedy papers struggle with 'political correctness' climate

Emmy Ballard knew it was time for an apology. It was 2010, and the comedy paper she was an assistant editor of, The Fish Rap Live!, had been accused by the student population at University of California, Santa Cruz of publishing racist content and some groups had even called for defunding the paper.

The accusation had come in light of recent actions taken at a sister school’s comedy paper. The Koala, the comedy paper and TV station from nearby University of California, San Diego, had come out in support of a fraternity’s “Compton Cookout,” intended to mock Black History Month, where students were instructed to wear “ghetto-themed” clothing.

The event garnered national press attention as students, including the Black Student Union, spoke out against the event. The Koala’s response was to mock the protesters using a racial slur. Now, back at Santa Cruz, students there had taken a closer look at The Fish Rap Live! — and some of its more controversial content.

In the midst of a national debate on college campuses about offensiveness, inclusion and political correctness, several campus comedy papers across the country have described their recent reluctance to be offensive as a necessary step to remain both funny and relevant. Flagrantly offensive humor, they argue, is no longer what students crave or consider to have comedic value.

The Fish Rap Live! staff had met the staff of The Koala before the incident at a conference, and found their taste for the offensive off-putting. The Koala made shock-value jokes and published a “Top 5 Black People at UCSD” list, whereas The Fish Rap Live! went through phases where they used poop jokes, Ballard said.

Then they looked deeper into their own paper and realized: they had race issues as well. There was the comic that showed “Obama’s Victory Garden” with items associated with African-American stereotypes such as collard greens, and the fact that people of color on staff had started speaking up and saying their voices had not been heard.

The editors created an apology issue, with a crying fish on the cover, that contained four pages of individual letters of apologies from editors and a list of how they planned to change their content to reflect new values. They cut their staff size in half to make it more manageable, added an interview process in lieu of an open acceptance policy and required sensitivity training for the staff.

“It has quickly become clear that the current criticisms of our publication are not mere overreactions or a case of political correctness,” Ballard wrote in her letter. “If we cannot be funny without lazy humor and racial jokes, we are not worthy of our readership, our resources or the energy and talent of our staff.”

Where to draw the line

In the past several years, college comedy outlets have tended to shy away from anything that could be marked sexist or racist, and when student writers do cover topics that could raise hairs, certain conversations about the direction of the comedy happen in the editorial room.

Editors want to know: are we “punching down,” or piling on the underdog? Are we critiquing and adding value to the conversation or perpetuating a stereotype? Comedy editors and writers now want to know that they can defend the substance of their comedy and its inherent worth and contribution to a conversation at large from any complaints.

Though student editors’ approaches to how they determine offensiveness and where they draw the line differs by staff, almost all college humor publications look to the same model – The Onion. The country’s most prominent satirical news website first started out as a college paper at the University of Wisconsin, and many editors at comedy papers across the country adhere to its comedic stylings, sometimes continuing on to work at the site itself.

Chris Gilman has followed the college comedy paper-to-Onion path. After spending time as an undergraduate writing for the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Travesty, the largest college humor publication in the country, he now has an editorial apprenticeship at The Onion. He writes headlines and jokes across sections for the website and can observe and learn from senior staffers.

He sees their comedic philosophy as straightforward: if there’s no truth to it, then it doesn’t work. During his time as an undergraduate on the Travesty, there was backlash from a few articles that mocked real sorority names or referenced Nazis.

But Gilman considered those jokes to be fleshed out and hold comedic value and stood by them. In his first few months at the Onion, he’s seen all the editors do the same.

There’s a difference, Gilman said, between humor created with the sole purpose to offend and humor crafted about a sensitive subject to point to a larger truth.

“Comedy is an art, and I don’t think people should tell any artist what their art can or cannot be,” he said.

In the past year, at least two college humor publications — The Koala and Michigan Technological University’s The Daily Bull — have faced disciplinary action for published articles from the college itself. At UCSD in November, the student government defunded all 13 student publications, with representatives saying that they had to make an across-the-board cut since they couldn’t discriminate against the Koala specifically. The cut was in response to a Koala article that mocked students’ requests for safe spaces on campus and contained racial slurs — the article spurred UCSD administrators into publicly denouncing the Koala.

At MTU, a Daily Bull article in November called “Sexually Harassed Man Pretty Okay with Situation” (and an accompanying list of “Signs that she wants the D” that included items like, “she only screams a little”) prompted university administrators to place the Bull on probation for two years. The student government voted to withdraw some of the Bull’s funding and to withhold more until staffers had attended Title IX training.

When college campuses – typically cited as hotspots and exemplary advocates of free speech rights – start pushing back against offensive speech, some have argued that there is a chilling effect on free speech. It’s something some professional comics have picked up on.

In 2015, Jerry Seinfeld told reporters he no longer performs at colleges because he believes students “just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist.’ ‘That’s sexist.’ ‘That’s prejudiced.’” Seinfeld said these terms are thrown about “without knowing what they are talking about.” Chris Rock has also spoken publicly about avoiding campuses in the past, saying colleges were far too eager “not to offend anybody.”

Editors of many of the comedy papers disagree, saying they are not giving up their right to say whatever they want, just harnessing it. The staffs that err on the side of less-inflammatory language said they work to find comedy and comment on topics that will be received well, instead of dismissed as insensitive or offensive.

Where politically correct meets comedy

Sam Heft-Luthy, editor-in-chief of Brown University’s satirical paper The Brown Noser, said conversations about political correctness have been ongoing in his newsroom since he joined the paper in 2012.

The Brown Noser’s policy is to adhere to a standard of publishing content “that is engaging rather than shutting things down for no specific reason,” Heft-Luthy said. For its staff, this is not self-policing, it’s self-consideration.

“The idea that comedy is a different form of speech than any other is something I find dangerous. It’s a different context because you’re coming at something in a surprising way,” Heft-Luthy said. “Not to consider the social consequences of what you’re saying devalues the people you’re hurting in that speech.”

Heft-Luthy said The Brown Noser has what he considers to be a positive relationship with the campus, and since his tenure on paper, he cannot think of any articles that particularly inflamed the student community.

Since the apology issue at UC-Santa Cruz, The Fish Rap Live! has adopted a philosophy to not perpetuate negative stereotypes. Current co-editor-in-chief Billy Butler said he considers UCSC to be an active liberal campus filled with students who are sensitive and concerned about the tone of humor articles.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be accountable to your humor and comedy. Your comedy should be able to stand up to scrutiny,” Butler said.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President Greg Lukianoff tends to disagree with how these papers are pushing their newfound comedy philosophy.

This past fall, FIRE released a documentary called “Can We Take a Joke?” that featured comedians including Gilbert Gottfried, Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli and Heather McDonald that dissected the relationship between comedy and free speech.

“The culture of outrage is encouraged by the current campus environment. It becomes very easy to silence people you disagree with,” Lukianoff said. “Sometimes it’s so obvious that someone was kidding, there’s just a desire to be outraged. Part of the fear is a bit of outrage theater.”

When free speech offends

As most of these papers adopt political correctness as a baseline for their comedy, The Koala stands out. Known for its shocking comedy, The Koala has drawn national media attention for a couple of particularly outrageous stories. One of the first was in 2005, when its TV station, Koala TV, broadcast a Koala editor performing sexual acts with a pornography actress.

The student editor said the 15-minute pornography film, broadcast across the university’s student station and later saved online, was in response to a student government ban on nudity and obscene sexual activity across all student networks. He was subsequently interviewed on shows such as ”The O’Reilly Factor,” whose host questioned the value of “state-funded pornography.” The editors at the time stood behind the First Amendment and their right to provoke.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said though The Koala’s content is usually protected as parody or satire, distributing pornography on a campus station could land student journalists in hot water because some student viewers are likely minors.

In 2010, Koala TV had its funding frozen by student government after it supported the “Compton Cookout” party that encouraged attendees to dress in black stereotypes. When student government suspended funding as a response to what was termed “hate speech,” the station then replayed the controversial pornography video with the image of a female student government leader superimposed over the porn actress’s face.

When initially contacted for an interview, The Koala’s editor-in-chief Gabe Cohen declined to comment unless his staff was provided with beer. Later, after UCSD student government froze the Koala’s funding once again, Cohen agreed to an interview with the understanding that no alcohol would be provided for his staff.

As the leader of the notorious paper, Cohen has had to face widespread criticism that The Koala is not of any value. Their article mocking safe spaces on campus — which included the lines “Too long has the no-blacks rule been removed from our campus. Too long have students not been free to offend their hypersensitive peers.” — led to the defunding of all student media as university administrators called the Koala “profoundly repugnant, repulsive, attacking and cruel.”

Editors from the other student media that also lost funding as a result of the cut responded with an open letter, citing the need to offer a space to all student publications, while simultaneously saying they considered The Koala to be hateful and did not vouch for its offensive content.

“Our goal is not to be blatantly hateful,” Cohen said.

The paper’s comedic philosophy, Cohen said, is “no holds barred.” They’ll print the n-word nine times in a story just because other comedy papers would find that inappropriate, he said, or dedicate pages of their print edition to graphic nude images of people having sex.

“We’re not here to fight some social justice war,” he said.

What The Koala is fighting for, he said, is the right to free speech. Cohen said he considers the legal implications of every piece, and one of the only lines he believes not worth crossing is a piece that would imply a threat to harm a non-public figure by name. The Koala has retracted pieces in the past after its editors considered the content going too far, though Cohen declined to describe the nature of that content.

The Koala’s controversies are a bit of an outlier among campus comedy papers from the cases Goldstein typically sees. He most often hears from comedy writers nervous about the backlash from offended students, he said.

“There’s no such thing as ‘hate speech’ in U.S. law, so that is protected. There’s no basis for any of those assertions,” Goldstein said. “Usually it’s just that they are offended.” 

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter to receive a notification on Fridays about the week’s new articles.

Fill out my online form.