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When it Comes to Humor, Three College Campuses Aren’t Laughing

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Here’s a tip for college journalists contemplating wading into the murky waters of satire: There pretty much isn’t anything funny about Hitler.

The gray zone between edgy humor and offensive language can be tough to navigate, even for experienced writers. In recent weeks, students from Boston University, the University of Missouri, and Rutgers University have found themselves under fire for satirical editions of their campus publications.

At Rutgers, a student-run satirical newspaper ran spoof column entitled “What about the good things Hitler did?” The piece was attributed Aaron Marcus,  a Jewish student and columnist at the campus’ independent newspaper, who said he had relatives perish in the Holocaust.

“To say anything praiseworthy of someone like Hitler and to have people actually believe it was coming from me, even in a satirical manner, is just really painful for me and my family,” Marcus said in an interview with a local television news station.

The faculty advisor for the Rutgers’ student newspaper, Professor Ronald Miskoff, told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that “College is a time in people’s lives when they test boundaries and learn the results of errors.” He also said the student editors are “extremely aware that they have hit a hot-button issue, and I am sure they will learn something valuable from the experience.”

Boston University’s Chelsea Diana, editor of the campus’ student newspaper the Daily Free Press, resigned amid outrage over an April Fool’s edition that included stories of Snow White being drugged and raped by “seven frat dwarves,” and Cinderella under arrest for prostitution.

Diana, who issued a written apology, said the attempt at humor was called “pretty sophomoric” by her journalism professor.

“But, guess what? I’m a sophomore,” Diana wrote in a piece posted on “College is the time to learn and make mistakes before we enter the workforce, and from this horrible situation I’m gaining experience that most student journalists cannot put on a resume. As for my future, it’s in journalism and I will not succumb to those calling for me to give up for a mistake I made as a 19-year-old.”

The Boston Globe’s editorial board defended Diana, pointing to her strong track record of guiding the student publication on more serious topics.

“Under Diana’s direction, the paper had written several well-reasoned articles and editorials about sexual assaults on campus,” the Globe editorial stated. “The paper’s board of directors would have had a justifiable case to stick up for their editor, not push her out.”

The spoof “was rude, for sure,” the editorial concluded, “But it also had some satirical merit, especially on a campus grappling with how to prevent sexual assaults.”

The student-run Maneater, billed as the “the student voice of Missouri University since 1955,” has issued multiple apologies in the weeks since its April Fool’s edition ran, renamed for the day as the Carpeteater. Editor Abby Spudich issued an apology that stretched more than a thousand words, asking for forgiveness from the campus community.

While she admitted she had erred by allowing the spoof paper to include profane language that degraded women, Spudich also said she “truly did not know that ‘carpet eater’ is a derogatory term used for a lesbian.”

Her “poorly thought out rationale, Spudich wrote, “was that since they were not used in a way that glorifies the mistreatment or objectification of women, they were not offensive … I realize now that these words in and of themselves can contribute to further prejudice, no matter the context.”

When it comes to attempts at campus parody and satire, “you want to absolutely stay away from any attempts at humor involving rape or sexual assault,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a First Amendment advocacy organization based in Arlington, Va. “Those are such incredibly sensitive topics for those who have been through that experience, the last thing they need is for people to treat it like a joke.”

The Rutgers’ spoof raises particular concerns in the age of the Google search as a background check. Potential employers or admissions officers might hit on the link to the fake publication and not realize that the mock-up – which used the same photograph of Marcus and page layout as his legitimate newspaper column – isn’t real.

That’s one argument for not posting spoof editions online as individual articles, but rather collecting the entire issue into one document that is clearly labeled as “humor,” LoMonte said.

“The best defense against defamation in a humor publication often is that the overall context of the publication makes the humor readily apparent,” LoMonte said. “But if the story is capable of being viewed out of context, then you risk weakening that defense.”

College should be a place where it’s safe to try, fail, and try again. Campus publications can serve as valuable proving grounds for student journalists to test their skills, and develop their senses of humor. Thanks to the wonders of technology, such literary endeavors are easier to produce, creating greater opportunities for diversity of opinion.

But students must also be aware that their experiments testing the boundaries   — even the “sophomoric” ones — don’t expire on April 2. Instead, they are laying a digital trail that will follow them far beyond the relatively forgiving boundaries of higher education.