Free speech advocates urge the University of Wisconsin-Superior to drop its investigation into student newspaper’s April Fools’ edition



WISCONSIN — As the the investigation into the University of Wisconsin-Superior Promethean newspaper proceeds, free speech advocates are standing behind the student newspaper's use of satire.

For its annual April Fools’ edition, the Promethean staff decided to push the boundaries of modern-day stereotypes. The issue, renamed the Pessimist, was rampant with fabricated stories and vulgarities, and drew backlash from students and community members for its satire.

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The issue included fake stories about the university restarting a football program, past UWS student Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to teach a class, and references to minority stereotypes. What provoked an adverse response from some upset readers were stories involving the school’s large amount of international students -- referred to as “outsourcing” -- the lack of Jewish students on campus, and strategies for picking up women.

On April 6, Debbie Cheslock, a UWS graduate student and student program manager at the Gender Equity Resource Center, filed a formal grievance against the newspaper for its “inadequate notice of satire” and “demeaning expressive behavior” — which prompted a supportive response from the university critical of the Promethean.

The university announced in a statement on April 14 — which was later deleted from Facebook — that the Dean of Students’ Office is “actively investigating the grievance and working with UW System Legal to ensure this issue is properly and adequately addressed.”

“We strongly condemn the offensive nature of [the April Fools’ Day edition] of the student newspaper and encourage those responsible to apologize and take the necessary steps to ensure something like this never happens again,” the statement read. “It was offensive to many and contradictory to what we, as a university, are proud to stand for. It was bad student journalism done in poor taste!”

Marcus White, editor-in-chief of the Promethean, said the university has hardly communicated with him about the investigation, other than email correspondence. He said that the newspaper staff will not apologize for, or retract, its satirical work.

The Promethean editorial board issued a statement about the investigation today, saying that it continues to stand by its April Fools’ edition as well as exercising its free press rights.

“To be inclusive means to respect the opinion and speech of others, regardless of its nature or source,” the statement read. “This is a liberal arts university, not a safe zone for people to have their ideas censored because others disagree with them. Some opinions offend us, others make us cringe, but in an inclusive environment these opinions are still respected.”

On April 15, UWS Assistant Director of Student Involvement Allison Garver sent an email to White informing him that a formal grievance had been filed with the Dean of Students’ office regarding the April Fools’ edition and that the office would be conducting an investigation. Garver and White arranged to have an informal meeting on Thursday to discuss “the concern and to gather information” as well as review the process for the incident.

White said after seeking legal guidance, he cancelled the meeting.

The university’s reaction drew criticism from free speech advocates who accused UWS of disregarding its constitutional duties as a public institution.

In a letter, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education expressed its deep concern over the university’s investigation into the Promethean.

“Cheslock is free as a student to file such a grievance and issue these criticisms. However any formal investigation conducted by UWS into the grievance’s allegations, and by extension the Promethean’s content, violates the publication’s constitutional rights,” the letter read. “Satire, of course, may be offensive and is often intended to offend. The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or offensive.” 

The Student Press Law Center has contacted UWS administrators on the student journalists’ behalf to inform them that any disciplinary investigation into the newspaper would violate press freedom

Tagged: April Fools' Day, college media, First Amendment, First Amendment, first-amendment, recent-news, university-of-wisconsin-superior