Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: College humor

Mar 31, 2011

Ah, April 1st -- the one day a year when many college journalists like to pretend they work for the Onion and slip fake stories into the paper. Or produce an entire section of fake news.

Usually, the results are funny (or at least groan-tastic). 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.

Can college students be funny? Are they mature enough to write true satire? (Or are their easily offended classmates just being over-sensitive?)

I will be joined by Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center who has helped college journalists work through many humor-related catastrophes.

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

Hello and happy Almost-April-Fools-Day!

Right now I am reading through some of the joke stories the GW Hatchet posted today -- including one about the university president's destructive fist-pumping habit.

Anyone else published a spoof edition this week or planning to tomorrow? Have questions about how to do so with care?

Frank and I can't wait to hear your questions!

Hi all, it's  Frank LoMonte - I'm a lawyer, journalist and director of the nonprofit Student Press Law Center, located in Arlington and on the web at www.splc.org. It's a free source of legal information for people involved in the student media. Thanks to Jenna and the Post for inviting us on.

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?

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.

My son, and, it seems, thousands of other applicants to the University of Michigan out there, are not going to receive an admissions decision until mid-April. The school said that they have been overwhelmed with applications since going to the Common Application this year for the first time. Not receiving a decision until the last minute has been incredibly stressful. Any thoughts about this?

In the past, most schools tried to get back to students by early April at the latest -- but this year it seems like a few admissions departments are running behind. (I hadn't heard about University of Michigan, but I wrote a blog post about schools that ARE announcing.)

I can't say that I'm surprised: Many colleges are celebrating receiving more and more applications (and lowering their admit rates) while not drastically increasing their admissions staff to process all of the apps. And since most schools would rather have a human than a computer pick the Class of 2015, it's going to take more time.

The sad part: Mid-April decisions only give students a couple weeks at most to decide where to enroll. After waiting months to hear back, that doesn't seem exactly fair. Fingers crossed for your son!

Will the Washington Post have an April Fools day issue?

I take it you don't read the coverage of Congress?

hahaha, well played, Frank

A satirical story looks one way published in the newspaper on April 1st -- but it might look a little different online. Should editors include some sort of disclaimer? Take the piece down after a while? Not put it up in the first place?

Yeah, this is one of those consequences of the way publications are read online. Lots of people don't come in through the front door -- they come in through a direct link. So even if you put the biggest April Fools disclaimer in the world across the front page, that may get missed. Lots of publications have now taken to stripping a disclaimer under every byline, to deal with just this problem, and that makes sense to me.

Are there really legal challenges to a campus newspaper running a joke issue? What examples have there been?

Honestly, legal challenges almost never materialize. There are a lot of reasons for this. The biggest is that defamation is all about what would be perceived by a reasonable reader given the context. In most every case of a humor edition, there are ample contextual tip-offs not to take the story seriously. 

The adverse consequences we see are not lawsuits but protests by readers, threats of university disciplinary action, and even imposition of editorial content controls by previously hands-off schools. There was a terrible example of that a couple of years ago at Georgetown, where a misfired humor edition of the Hoya actually set back progress on trying to persuade the administration to give the newspaper its independence.

My first thought was also The Hoya, which received several sanctions from the university media board and had to hire an outside consultant to review the situation. (The rival campus mag reported the findings in great detail.)

And there are other avenues than courtrooms: Some newspapers risk losing student fee funding or the ability to distribute all over the city.

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. 

What about schools themselves playing the prank? Johns Hopkins

I loved that prank!

For those who don't remember: Last year, Johns Hopkins announced that it was dropping that pesky first "s" and becoming John Hopkins. The president put out a statement saying, "we strongly suspect the extra 's' was a typo in the first place." There were photos of the S being removed from signs and buildings. 

One frazzled reporter apparently fell for the joke for a couple minutes, but a lot of people were laughing about it. And now, hopefully, everyone remembers the proper name is JohnS Hopkins.

(Here are some other AFD pranks from last year.)

Have you heard of these "confessional" type sites? What role do they play on campus? Anonymous online musings/gossip that often spirals downward in the wrong directions...all year round.

Yes! I personally can't relate to why anyone thinks it's a good idea to broadcast how drunk they were last night, but apparently it's a hobby. There definitely are schools and colleges with various types of good-conduct codes that will use students' online activity as evidence to bring disciplinary charges (e.g., if you're an athlete on a team that forbids substance abuse and you're 'outed' online as a pot smoker). I think it's a tougher case constitutionally if the school is actually expelling you for purely off-campus conduct that you confess to online -- but of course that's only true at a public institution, where due process and the First Amendment offer you some protection.

And the growing trend is for legislatures, like New Jersey's, to penalize 'cyberbullying' by college students. We're going to see legal tests emerging as to (a) what speech is punishable as bullying and (b) whether a college can constitutionally punish you just for being a bad person, even if the speech doesn't disrupt the operations of the school in any way.

Do you have any examples of well-done joke stories?

In general, the most effective (and most legally safe) stories are the ones that spoof the institution as a whole rather than identifiable individuals, especially students. There was a good one last year in Maryland's Diamondback about the school changing its mascot to a giant panda, that was well-done and totally harmless.

On the pro level, you just aren't going to get better than what Google seems to come up with every year. They're just brilliant at making fun of themselves, and us.

Anyone out there refusing to do anything on April Fools Day? How did that conversation play out in your newsroom?

If a story is offensive, but also fake, what are some potential ramifications? How should editors address complaints?

Great question. First thing, of course, is that at a public institution where the First Amendment applies, even "offensive" speech is legally protected speech. So even a joke that goes badly wrong and hacks off half the campus is still not a lawful basis for the school to de-fund the paper, fire the editors or otherwise retaliate. 

A couple things. First, calmly (but quickly) assess how badly you screwed up. If you did something really seriously wrong, then you'll want to get out in front of it and explain, apologize and (if warranted) take some action against the offender(s) internally. That's key -- you want to show the public and the college that the newsroom has its own accountability system so that the college doesn't feel that it needs to step in and impose external controls.

Remember of course that there is no legal right not to be offended, so there's no legitimate legal exposure for a story that is merely offensive (as opposed to libelous, i.e., making false factual accusations against identifiable individuals). So while you may suffer some damage with readers and advertisers, you shouldn't be at any real litigation risk.

Lots of great advice from Frank. I would just reiterate that it's so important to not put off addressing the problem -- don't let that e-mail sit unreturned, don't forget to return that phone message. Especially with the wonders of the Internet, these things can spiral of out control if those offended do not feel like their concerns are being heard.

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.

A really great question -- especially on college campuses where everyone thinks they are a big deal of some sort.

Last year a Syracuse law school student started a satirical blog called "SUCOLitis" that contained fake news but some real student and faculty names -- prompting a university investigation and months of debate. (Daily Orange story)

Generally, what are some guidelines that a satirical story may go too far in funny-offensive to just offensive?

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 dialect that, while not legally actionable, are just mean and hurtful. Definitely want to tread carefully around that subject, if you touch it at all. 

Not April Fools but... an example of what Frank mentions.

Exhibit A: Alexandra Wallace

vs.

Exhibit B: Jimmy Wong

Four-letter words: Is that a do or don't in satirical stories? How much is too much?

This really is a matter of knowing your audience and your institution. If I'm at Ouachita Baptist and I'm a 100% school funded paper, I analyze that differently than if I'm at Berkeley and I'm independently funded. If you want to push the envelope with your administration, why not save that up for the investigation of their expense accounts? It's so much better on a resume to say your paper got shut down for investigating corruption than for dropping an F-bomb. 

Profanity is still legally protected speech, of course. "Obscenity" is a legal term referring to such hard-core sexual content that it has no redeeming value, and a swear word is not legally obscene, even though we call it an obscenity. You may remember a college editor in Colorado, who's now a quite successful professional journalist, managed to get an F-bomb about President Bush into print and lived to tell about it. But that probably doesn't make it a great idea.

It's not college-related, but I love this one.  The best line is the last: "Editor's Note - This is really just an April Fool's Day joke. Everything in this story is fictional, including seeking the advice of the Navy. Have a great day."

Yay, Kansas!

My favorite quote from today's chat: "I'd personally favor Breathalyzer locks on newsroom computers." Hilarious!

Frank, thanks so much for answering questions today! Hopefully, everyone is prepped for tomorrow, and we will have a drama-free and fun AFD...

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

Oh -- and if you ever have any journalism-related problems or questions, the Student Press Law Center is a great resource. They can be reached at splc@splc.org.

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Frank LoMonte
Frank LoMonte joined the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit legal assistance organization serving the student media in January 2008. Before coming to the SPLC, he practiced law with the Atlanta-based firm of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP and clerking for federal judges on the Northern District of Georgia and the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Before law school, LoMonte was an award-winning investigative journalist and political columnist in state Capitol bureaus in Florida and Georgia and in Washington, D.C., with the Morris newspaper chain. LoMonte graduated magna cum laude from the University of Georgia School of Law, where he was a senior editor of the Georgia Law Review.
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