Collegiate Clowning Around

May 18, 2012

It is tradition for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell’s student-run newspaper, The Connector, to publish a year-end spoof issue.  Appropriately dubbed The DisConnector, the edition is a chance for the newspaper staff to provoke discussion while blowing off steam by using satire and other forms of humor to poke fun at items seen or heard around campus throughout the past year.  This year’s installment, however, containing numerous profanities and derogatory language, has been lambasted as being overly crude to the point of disrespecting and offending entire groups of people including homosexuals, immigrants, racial minorities, and women.

Notably, The Connector is just the latest in a string of student newspapers to receive intense censure in the past few months for content appearing in satirical editions.  The papers at Rutgers University, Boston University, and the University of Missouri have each been criticized for editorial decisions related to April Fools’ issues.

In most instances, the First Amendment provides broad protection and limits the action a public institution may take against an independently run student newspaper.  Indeed, the administration at UMass-Lowell, while condemning The Connector’s most recent exercise of editorial judgment (or lack thereof), recognizes and places high value on the freedoms of speech and of the press and, as such, has no future plans to censor the publication.  But even as the First Amendment safeguards against government censorship, threat of lawsuits brought by private individuals—for defamation, emotional distress, or intrusion into one’s privacy, for example—may still give pause to student newspapers as they push the limits of indecency in the name of a laugh.

Having previously worked with the Student Press Law Center, I wished to delve further into the details of actions taken either against schools for their expurgatorial efforts or against the student publications themselves.  I was particularly interested in any information regarding settlements or jury verdicts.  I crafted the following simple search using WestlawNext:

Search:  school newspaper spoofs

Jurisdiction: All State & Federal

From Filters, Search within results in Cases: TO(school university college student /p news****** paper publication publish journal! press)

From Filters, Search within results in Jury Verdicts and Settlement Summaries: (school university college student /p news****** paper publication publish journal! press)

Most interesting to me were the creative ways in which some settlements were reached.  In addition to the usual damages and attorneys’ fees, one newspaper agreed to run ads for free (2008 WL 6691482), another school promised to increase its funding for the student publication (2008 WL 6691482), and one settlement mandated donations to non-profit journalism organizations (2003 WL 23529612).  In order to organize my research and ensure easy access to these documents in the future, I went ahead and added them to my personal research folder.

For additional news articles detailing public outcry over newspaper spoofs, run the same original search I ran above in the News content page on WestlawNext.