Utah newspaper's senior prank results in hold on graduating staff members' records

UTAH -- Nine graduating senior staff members at the University of Utah's The Daily Utah Chronicle may not be receiving diplomas at Friday's graduation ceremony. After a traditional farewell gag ran in the student newspaper, the senior staff members received an e-mail informing them an administrative hold was being placed on their records.

Since 1999, graduating seniors at the Chronicle have organized a yearly send-off prank that involves arranging drop-cap letters to spell out words in their farewell columns. This year, when placed on the page, the column's drop-caps spelled out "cunt" and "penis."

The university's e-mail claimed the editors were in violation of the university's Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities for, "intentional disruption or obstruction of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary proceedings or university activities," and "unauthorized or improper use of any university property, equipment, facilities or resources."

Outgoing Editor-in-Chief Rachel Hanson said the graduating staff members will be able to participate in graduation ceremonies, but unless they have a meeting with the Office of the Dean of Students, all of their records, transcripts and degrees will be placed on hold. They were told that they would not be able to meet with the Office of the Dean of Students until next week, after graduation.

The Office of the Dean of Students declined to comment for this article, calling the matter an "ongoing investigation."

"We'll be able to walk, but unless something gets taken care of before 9 a.m. tomorrow and that hold gets taken off, that will delay our diplomas being processed and sent to us, or any transcripts or anything," Hanson said.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said withholding diplomas or transcripts is a complete violation of the students' First Amendment rights.

"That the administration doesn't find this tradition funny doesn't give them the right to punish what is, at its core, speech. The entire purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the right to offend people. Sometimes you offend King George by calling him unfair, and sometimes you offend your dean by naming body parts," said Goldstein.

The SPLC and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Inc. jointly sent a letter Thursday, calling on the university to rescind any threat of discipline.

Hanson said the farewell columns rarely garner attention. But this year, photos of the column were posted on FailBlog and circulated on Twitter and Facebook, which caught the attention of administrators.

Over the years, "the words would vary in degree of naughtiness," Hanson said. Hanson said she has been contacted primarily by administrators who say the

Chronicle was "disrespectful" and "cavalier" by running the columns, but has not received any complaints from students.

"The administration has tried to make it as though the students on campus were rioting, and demanding that we were all fired but, I mean, as far as I can tell that hasn't been the case. It hasn't really impacted anyone's life," Hanson said.

The Chronicle is an independent student newspaper, and Hanson hopes that this does not affect the way things are managed next year.

"I worked at the Chronicle for three years and I'm devoted to its independence. I want to keep it that way above all else," Hanson said.

The university's News and Media Relations office did not return calls by press time.

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