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UWS student paper's April Fools' Day issue draws backlash

The University of Wisconsin-Superior's student newspaper, the Promethean, published an April Fools' Day edition that the editorial board said was a satire of social and political issues. Some minority students on campus say they found it to be offensive rather than satire. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The publication of a profanity-laced April Fools’ Day edition of the University of Wisconsin-Superior student newspaper, filled with fabricated stories, has drawn fire from some on campus who say it was a guise for publishing offensive jokes about minorities.

The university administration has “condemned” the issue of the Promethean — renamed the Pessimist for that edition — and a grievance filed with the UWS Dean of Students Office has prompted the office to begin an investigation into the student-run newspaper.

Meanwhile, the editor and faculty adviser of the Promethean say the April 1 issue was satire intended to start a campus discussion on social and political issues.

Interspersed with joke stories about one-time UWS student Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to teach a course, and the school restarting a football program, the issue contains a story headlined “Area Jewish man doesn’t know how the f--- he got here,” in which a Jewish man is laughed at for his accent and name. The story contains a derogatory term for a person of Jewish descent.

The issue also includes fake stories referring to the school’s large number of international students and UWS “outsourcing” its entire student body; pick-up lines involving a woman’s breasts; an initiative called #SelfieswithChristians; and a “Dear Abby” column in which a writer’s ex-girlfriend is called a derogatory term for women.

“I fully acknowledge that many of our stories written for our satire edition not just cross the line, but ignore it altogether creating a level of absurdity and obnoxiousness that many on the UW-Superior campus will undoubtedly find offensive and demeaning,” Marcus White, the Promethean’s student editor-in-chief, said in a written statement after the issue was published. He said the issue was intended “to point out the cruel nature of what is happening in this country.”

Debbie Cheslock, a UWS graduate student and student program manager at the UWS Gender Equity Resource Center, states in her grievance that the April 1 edition didn’t have a disclaimer that it was satire, included demeaning language and statements, and that the paper’s editorial board — in a subsequent email refusing to meet with her to discuss concerns — intimidated her in an attempt to take away her freedom of speech.

“The point is that even though there are freedoms for expression, there are also consequences for inappropriate expressions. There are real consequences for everything that we do, and it is unfortunate that the Promethean’s staff and faculty adviser chose a path of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and other demeaning actions ... ,” Cheslock wrote in her grievance. “Offending people in protected classes in the name of satire is not free from consequences, nor should it ever be.”

UWS student Ilana Yokel, who is Jewish, said she believes the April 1 edition was the result of the Promethean staff not understanding the everyday experiences of minority students.

“I think that privilege is playing a huge role here. People from a mostly privileged standpoint decided to take on issues of people who are not necessarily in a place of privilege — without asking the people they were supposedly defending if it was OK that they defended them in this manner. That’s not being a good ally,” Yokel said.

When Susan Stanich, the Promethean’s faculty adviser and a senior lecturer in the UWS communicating arts department, was asked by the News Tribune if she discussed with the Promethean’s staff, before the paper was printed, the effect its content could have on minority students, she replied that she opposes “speech codes” at universities because they “smother” free speech and discussion.

“Nobody was insulted. There were no hate crimes or hate speech there. If people want to be insulted, they’re free to be insulted,” Stanich said.

Issue “condemned”

White and Stanich argue that the student paper has a First Amendment right to publish material that some on campus may find offensive.

“They were just doing a funny thing. It might have misfired, but jokes misfire all the time and they’re protected by the First Amendment,” Stanich said.

White and Stanich have continued to stand by the issue's content and say they have received positive feedback about the edition, which was issued in print but not posted online.

White explained that the editorial board declined to meet with Cheslock to discuss concerns because the board meets only in “closed-door meetings.” Stanich said she wouldn’t meet with Cheslock because she’s not going to overrule the paper’s editorial board.

“We respect people’s right to disagree with it. We respect that there are people who will find it hurtful, but the editorial board as a whole has remained firm that we did this with a purpose,” White said, adding that an apology would be counterproductive to the paper’s satire purpose.

“We feel it’s our right under freedom of the press and the First Amendment and, as student journalists, that part of being a college paper is sometimes you push the envelope and obviously there’s going to be some pushback. But we’re firm in that because we’re a liberal arts college and the envelope comes with a liberal arts education.”

The paper is accepting letters to the editor and anyone can address the paper’s staff at the start of its meetings at noon on Tuesdays, he said. Stanich and White also attended a forum organized by Cheslock on Monday to discuss the issue.

UWS administration typically doesn’t get involved in issues involving student-run organizations on campus, but has become involved in this one due to the grievance filed, said Daniel Fanning, UWS director of communications and government relations.

“We condemn the action, but that said, we’re not directly involved in it. Students have a right, it’s a student-run organization and it’s funded by student dollars. We’re encouraging students who have raised concerns to directly contact the newspaper and let them know that it’s the student dollars that fund the newspaper and they should have a say in what is and isn’t printed,” Fanning said. “We’ll look into this and if lines were crossed that shouldn’t have been, people will be held accountable.”

He added, “They’ve obviously offended some people and they need to own up to that and apologize for that and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

In response to the administration’s reaction, Stanich told the News Tribune, “There have been a number of First Amendment organizations noticing the April Fools’ issues and how they’ve been condemned by universities forever. And guess what? There’s nothing illegal about them and in fact, they’re a good idea. Universities tend to condemn these issues because that’s what universities do. Universities tend to shut down open dialogue if you’re having a conversation they don’t like.”

In 1996, an April Fools’ Day issue of the Statesman — the student newspaper at the University of Minnesota Duluth — drew fire for including jokes about minority groups. In that case, the then-editor of the paper quickly apologized for what he called unintentional offense.

Making a statement

This year is the second year of the Promethean’s April Fools’ Day satire edition. The students use the issue as a way to draw attention to issues and highlight the “absurdity in the news,” White said.

“To make a statement, to point out what’s going on, you really need to push it a little bit to get people to say, hey, this stuff is going on in our society and you should be paying attention to it. That’s our hope, our satire brings the conversation back,” White said.

Each student on the Promethean’s staff is free to write as they see fit for the satire edition, White said. The April 1 edition is planned nearly two months ahead of time to give students enough time to write. Although the Promethean is funded through student fees, the paper’s April 1 edition is funded by ad revenue, White said; the April 1 edition had no ads, but other issues of the paper do. Two assistant editors and White reviewed the April 1 edition before publication, he said.

In regard to her role in the April 1 edition, Stanich said, “I didn’t have anything to do with it. It’s a product of a student organization. I’m an adviser so I don’t have any actual control. I only have influence. It’s really their paper.”

Stanich said there was some content in the April 1 edition that she didn’t like, “but that’s not my business; it’s their paper.”

In an April 1 email to the Promethean staff, Stanich encouraged the students to be proud of their participation in the edition as “an important free-speech, First Amendment exercise.” She wrote that students shouldn’t let anyone tell them that they’ve misused their First Amendment rights.

“Far from it, and far from causing harm, you have challenged readers and pushed hard against the perpetual efforts of society to stifle discussion that might cross some line or other. Unpleasant words or ideas might be difficult to hear, even revolting; but censorship is far worse, and self-censorship is deadly,” she wrote.

She later explained to the News Tribune that she doesn’t feel that the paper’s content has hurt the environment of inclusion on the campus. She said she has talked to many students in her classes about it and “nobody seems that upset.” Stanich said she agrees with the students criticizing the paper’s content and when she takes a stand for the First Amendment, she’s standing up for their right to free speech as well.

“Of course we want to speak respectfully to people and we want people to feel good about themselves, both on campus and off,” Stanich said. “But at the same time, we can start being so careful that we can start censoring ourselves all the time and being so careful about what we say that we become hampered by worry that we might hurt somebody’s feelings and that really isn’t good for free discussion.”

“Really, really hurt”

UWS student Nyanyika Banda, who is black and the daughter of immigrants, said she feels that rather than raising awareness, the April 1 edition merely emulated the discrimination that minorities face in their daily lives.

“I think that was the point a lot of students on campus are trying to make, is that it was not funny and it was in poor taste. A lot of the people that belong to these disenfranchised groups on campus came out feeling really, really hurt. A lot of the discourse at that (Monday forum) were people that belonged to these groups, myself included. You question transferring to a different school when you don’t feel like you’re being represented on campus or if you don’t feel like you’re in a safe place,” she said.

UWS student Gabriel Vo, who identifies as gender-fluid and was raised in Vietnam, said she usually believes offensive statements come from a place of ignorance about people who are different. However, she said she was shocked to hear from White at Monday’s forum that the paper’s content was intentionally inflammatory. By doing that, she said, the Promethean staff used the paper — a voice that represents the UWS student community — against minority students and then, when confronted by those students, refused to take responsibility.

“You’re using journalism as your excuse,” she said of the newspaper staff. “You can’t just hide behind the First Amendment like that. That’s not the way to go. Discussion can be raised without hurting people.”

Vo said that when she raised concerns during Monday’s forum, White’s response was that international students need to be taught what satire is so they can understand the paper’s content.

“Just because I’m an international student doesn’t mean that I’m oblivious of what a satire is,” Vo said.

Cheslock noted that the paper’s staff wanted to begin a conversation on campus, but is refusing to have meetings with anyone regarding the paper’s content and doesn’t recognize that dialogue about issues facing minorities has been ongoing for years at UWS.

“It almost felt like a personal stab at everything I’ve been doing and everything my other colleagues have been doing for all these years and doing all these great events. We have not had to upset people, not even once, never had to make anybody mad to have those conversations,” she said.

Cheslock said she wants those involved in the Promethean to be sent a message that the paper’s content was not acceptable and isn’t what UWS stands for. She also wants to ensure that the Promethean staff and faculty advisor go through a cultural competency training about diversity.

Yokel said that with free-speech rights comes a duty to exercise those rights in a responsible way.

“The First Amendment is a right, yes, but you not only have a right to say what you want, you have a responsibility to the people you’re representing,” Yokel said. “This paper is a student paper and I’m a student and this paper does not represent me.”

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