Ah, April 1st. For generations, college newspapers (plus blogs, magazines and other outlets) have celebrated April Fools’ Day by sneaking in a fake story or producing an entire section of satirical news.
Usually, the results are funny — or at least groan-tastic. The University of Maryland Diamondback reported last year that the out-going university president wanted to change the mascot from a diamondback terrapin to an endangered giant panda, because “we needed an animal that's actually unstoppable.” The Hatchet at George Washington University published a spoof issue Thursday, reporting that their university president’s dance moves, especially his fist-pumping, were responsible for some dorm destruction.
But every year some satirical stories make jokes that are more offensive than funny — enraging administrators, angering readers and, occasionally, landing college journalists in court.
Should college newspaper even try to be funny? Should satirical issues become a thing of the past?
On Thursday, I chatted about college humor with Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, who has helped college journalists work through many humor-related catastrophes.
There is a full transcript from our chat, but here are a few of the questions and answers:
I have heard from a few college journalists that most of their joke stories are written on deadline — sometimes after a pitcher or two of beer — and there's not much time to reflect on the topics. Is this a problem? Any advice?
Frank LoMonte: I'd personally favor Breathalyzer locks on newsroom computers. Seriously, it's not a good idea to make any type of legally significant decision, including publishing, under the influence and in haste. In the unlikely (and it IS unlikely) event of a lawsuit, that would make for an uncomfortable explanation. It could help establish that the story was prepared negligently.
Do students really know what pushes their schools’ faculty’s and administrators’ buttons? What exactly is the difference between the fake stories that appear in their schools’ newspapers and the stuff that appears on FaceBook and other social media outlets?
Great bundle of questions. Schools are, with some justification, more proprietary about what goes into the publications they fund and that bear their names. So there’s a heightened sensitivity in seeing outrageous images or drawings or off-color language in what the school may consider “its newspaper” or “its magazine.” But that doesn’t mean some schools are not threatening discipline based on what students post on social networking sites, especially if the posting is publicly viewable. There are serious constitutional questions being thrashed out in the courts now over how far schools can reach off-campus, but those questions have not stopped them from trying.
Many April Fools’ stories make fun of “public figures” on campus. What makes a student a public figure?
Ooh, such a good one. “Public figure” has a mystical meaning in the law of defamation, because a public figure is under a heavier burden to prove a libel case and rarely can do so successfully. As a journalist, you almost have to intentionally set out to destroy the person. But one should never assume that anybody who’s not quite famous is going to be a public figure for libel purposes. On a college campus, you’re probably safe in assuming the president and the coaches of high-profile sports teams are for sure public figures, but as to anyone else, it’s a crap-shoot.
There are a couple of court cases that say that a prominent student-athlete or a high-ranking student government officer — the key is, someone who voluntarily grabs the spotlight — is a public figure. But unless it’s the Heisman Trophy winner, they’re probably only a “limited” public figure, meaning that heightened libel standard will apply to their public life (behavior in office) but not private life (embarrassing medical condition).
The distinction shouldn’t matter as long as the humor is very obvious and well-labeled — again, something clearly understood by a reasonable person as humor should be protected against defamation liability. But we’d still advise avoiding ridicule of named students, except perhaps for ridicule about the conduct of their official behavior or their on-field behavior.
Generally, what are some guidelines that a satirical story may go too far?
Here’s a quick one. Rape? Never funny. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever funny. Just don’t.
The other big one is racial stereotypes. Seriously, people, it’s college, not sixth grade — aren’t we past this? We’ve seen stories with people quoted talking in fake black or Asian dialects that, while not legally actionable, are just mean and hurtful. Definitely want to tread carefully around that subject, if you touch it at all.
Ryan Kellett : Not April Fools’ but ... an example of what Frank mentions.
Exhibit A: Alexandra Wallace
Exhibit B: Jimmy Wong
Again, here’s the full transcript from the chat. What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.