Outgoing U. columnists in trouble over 'hidden' vulgarity

Chronicle » Administrators place hold on students' transcripts following gag.
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The University of Utah student newspaper has a 12-year tradition of hiding vulgar or racy phrases in copy of the year's final edition, but this time it appears the pranksters did a poor job of concealing the offensive language.

Virtually emblazoned across the tops of two editorial pages in the Daily Utah Chronicle 's April 28 edition are references to male and female body parts, prompting U. administrators to place holds on the transcripts of the nine columnists, all seniors hoping to graduate today.

"We're still having conversations with the students to find out what's going on. I don't know that anything has been done yet," said Jerry Basford, associate vice president for student affairs.

You don't need to be in on the joke to see the offending words on the op-ed pages. The first letter of each column, an oversized capital, spells the two words. Letters on one page spell "penis." Four letters on the facing page are a slang term for female genitalia.

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."

Past gags used tamer words, such as "drunk" and "balls," that were better hidden.

"It was not a group effort like this one," Fisher said. "The language was safer in the past. I sort of knew it was in the works. I advised against doing it and they ignored me. That's their prerogative."

Associate dean of students Lori McDonald sent e-mails to the students this week informing them of holds on their records and requesting them to meet with her. The e-mail to Hanson accused the students of "[I] intentional disruption or obstruction of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary proceedings or other University activities," which could be grounds for 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.

Columnist Michael McFall spoke with McDonald on Thursday and said the meeting was not confrontational and he was assured the hold was only temporary.

"She was really nice... [The hold] is the only thing they can do because we are all graduating soon. It was used as an incentive to get us in the office and talk to them," said McFall, a mass communication major looking for a newspaper job. In retrospect, he said he would have handled the gag differently.

"I defend using the word 'penis.' It's clinical and it's funny. In hindsight, we abused our freedom to print whatever we want with the four-letter word. We meant it in the anatomical opposite to penis. We overlooked that it is extremely derogative to women."