An online student humor magazine altered its parody of a university publication in June under pressure from an administrator who said the satire might confuse incoming students and their parents.
The Georgetown Heckler posted a link to a spoof of the New Student Guide sent to incoming freshmen and transfer students on its Web site in May. The parody used the same design and some content from the actual guide, which included letters from University President John J. DeGioia and Provost James O’Donnell.
The parody contained a large image of the Heckler’s masthead on its cover, a disclaimer written in fine print on the last page and photographs of students drinking beer and a birthday cake shaped like a penis.
But in an e-mail sent in June to the Heckler’s editor, Jack Stuef (COL ’10), Assistant Director of Student Programs Heather Maginnis said that she was “very concerned” that students and their parents would think the parody was an actual publication from the Center for Student Programs or New Student Orientation.
“It seems inappropriate to use these pages from an official university publication, particularly when they implicate notable leadership, and manipulate them without permission,” aginnis wrote in the e-mail.
Maginnis could not be reached for comment for this article because she was busy fulfilling her duties as NSO director.
Maginnis asked in the e-mail that Stuef alter the parody to “not resemble in any format the official New Student Guide.” She also said that she had been in contact with the Office of Student Affairs and the university counsel and might “pursue this issue further” if the parody was not changed.
Stuef said in an interview that he took down the parody for a few days and altered it, removing the university seal, DeGioia’s signature and contact information for NSO. He also wrote “This is a parody” in red capital letters on the cover. Maginnis said in her e-mail communication with Stuef that she approved of his changes.
Stuef called Maginnis’s claims “ridiculous,” but said that he feared that the university might take disciplinary action against him.
“I wouldn’t put anything past the administration,” Stuef said.
The Heckler, founded in 2003 as the Georgetown Lampoon, is an independent publication not affiliated with Georgetown. It published exclusively online until last semester, when it distributed its first print issue.
Students and administrators at schools across the country frequently clash over free expression in student publications, but courts have affirmed wide protections against censorship in cases of satire.
In 1988, a New Jersey court ruled that content that is obviously satirical cannot be libelous when an administrator at Kean College of New Jersey, now Kean University, sued the student newspaper after the administrator’s name was used in a fake advertisement for a sex hotline printed in a spoof issue.
Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that to make a legal case against the Heckler, Georgetown administrators would need to demonstrate that a reasonable person could confuse the Heckler’s parody with an actual university publication.
“It wouldn’t take long for a rational person to look at this and say, `This isn’t from the university,'” Goodman said of the parody.
Goodman noted, however, that free speech protections would not preclude Georgetown from taking disciplinary action against a student for speech that it considered inappropriate or in violation of its speech and expression policy.
The Heckler intends to continue publishing print issues this year, Stuef said. He added that the university’s response to the spoof would not stop the magazine from parodying other university publications in the future.
“We will continue to do it, so we’ll just have to see what they do in response,” he said.