College newspaper penis prank leaves nine seniors in graduation limbo
Posted by andreaitis on May 7, 2010
It’s getting harder and harder to make this whole ‘journalist’ gig sound appealing.
Today is graduation day at the University of Utah except for nine seniors from the student newspaper, the Daily Utah Chronicle.
As a parting gift to the University of Utah, graduating senior writers at the student newspaper decided to leave with a vulgar word, or two.
The starting letters of each of the nine veteran reporters’ and staff members’ editorials, including one written by editor-in-chief Rachel Hanson, spelled out coarse words for male and female reproductive organs in their final printed edition, which hit stands April 28. Since then, the stunt has gone viral, earning more than 8,400 votes on failblog.org. It has been shared on Facebook and Twitter at least 3,000 times.
“It wasn’t meant to be obscene or pornographic,” Hanson said. “It was in poor taste, I’ll give you that, but it was just supposed to be a silly joke.”
It’s more than just a silly joke, though. It’s a tradition, one that began in the ’80s in fits and starts but has been consistently upheld for the last 12 years. Since 1999, graduating seniors at the Daily Utah Chronicle write and edit farewell pieces that, with some creative layout and design, reveal unexpected words. Previous years have included hidden words like “hateu,” “tipsy,” “drunk” and “balls.” Over the years the words have taken a more graphic turn. This year, the hidden words were “penis” and “cunt.”
When the Daily Utah Chronicle penis prank landed on failblog.org it received the digital equivalent of a standing ovation. University of Utah officials, however, were not laughing. They placed a hold on the academic records and diplomas for the nine graduating seniors.
Editor Rachel Hanson was concerned the administration’s response could impinge on students’ press freedom, as was the paper’s outgoing faculty adviser, Jim Fisher.
“It was childish and stupid, but it’s not a cause for institutional notice,” said Fisher, an associate professor of communication who had long planned to step down as adviser this spring. “It, at the very least, has a chilling effect, and at the most could be censorship. I don’t agree with the behavior at all, but I support their right to be idiots.”
Isn’t that what college is for, to work out your inner idiot so you can successfully mask that part of you when you get a real job? I remember walking one afternoon in between classes at Rutgers University, listening to our college radio station WRSU-FM (on my sony walkman, thankyouverymuch). I was a dj at the radio station, I knew the gang and the drill. Suddenly, the standard “Some of the music heard on WRSU-FM is provided by Cheap Thrills” was replaced with “Some of the music heard on WRSU-FM is brought to you by John’s record collection.”
They had stolen the airwaves. A few of the guys — mostly graduating seniors — stole the airwaves and were broadcasting from their apartment.
I don’t recall why, I just know it was funny. Then, and still. It wasn’t so funny, though, when a disciplinary committee was brought in and there was a formal review. I even had to testify, and while many of the details are now fuzzy I do remember how surreal it all seemed, like the bizarro world. It was a college prank! A really funny college prank. I understand there were some FCC issues but no one was hurt, they switched it all back, let’s laugh, slap a wrist and move on.
Perhaps the University of Utah is using this as a “teaching moment.” There is a valid point there, one of judgment and lines to be crossed, or not. How a single decision can have cascading impact. Match that against the First Amendment and the discussion heats up. In an email to editor-in-chief Rachel Hanson, Associate Dean of Students Lori McDonald accused the nine graduating seniors of “[I] intentional disruption or obstruction of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary proceedings or other University activities,” stating these offenses could lead to disciplinary action.
Such a charge is without merit, contends the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Student Press Law Center in a joint letter Thursday to U. officials.
“While the content in question might offend members of the campus community, it is unquestionably protected expression under the First Amendment,” the letter states, urging the U. to lift the hold on the students’ records and allow them to graduate today.
Are the students graduating today? They were told they could participate in the ceremony, but that their diplomas are on hold pending a post-graduation meeting. I went searching for the latest update on the Daily Utah Chronicle’s website but — surprise — there’s no coverage of their very own breaking story. Not on their newspaper site, and not on their @thechrony twitter feed. Is that the result of all this? That student journalists are intimidated into hiding? They’re not covering their very own story for fear of recriminations from the University. Journalists need to be fearless. They need to learn to make good decisions, to chase stories, to follow their instincts, to not back down when the story is out there. I understand it’s scary, taking on the administration. Did you make a mistake? Was it a bad judgment call? Most will say okay on “penis,” but “cunt” went too far. So, you learn from your mistakes. Trust me, every journalist has at least one big mistake they never ever forget. Thanks to this mishap, future employers will have their eyes on all nine of you now. Forget resumes, writing samples, cover letters. What are you going to show them, right now, right this minute? Turn #peniscuntgate into an opportunity. And for Pulitzer’s sake, cover your own story.