SALT LAKE CITY — 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 first letter that began 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."
Some administrators at the U. believe otherwise and have placed a hold on all nine students' academic records and diplomas, saying they may have violated the U.'s Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities, specifically providing an "intentional disruption" of university activities and unauthorized use of university resources, according to a letter sent to the students from the dean of students' office.
Daily Utah Chronicle adviser and former Salt Lake Tribune editor Jim Fisher, who resigned from his position a month ago after 10 years with the student paper, said he knew about the idea and had advised against it.
"I made it pretty clear it was going to cost them more than they knew," he said, adding that one of the words they used "is indefensible." But the backlash, he says, is unnecessary.
"The Chronicle is an independent newspaper. It is beholden to nobody," Fisher said, adding that the organization pays rent for the space used in the Union building on campus and purchases its own supplies. Student fees collected for the paper, he said, represent a subscription rate.
"While I don't defend their action, I will defend their right to do it forever," he said.
Although the idea came out of an 11-year tradition of hiding words within the last paper of the academic year, Hanson said the blame should rest on her alone, as the "figurehead" of the paper.
"My staff doesn't deserve what they've gone through," she said. "I was the one who knew about the tradition, and I spearheaded it."
After the fact, Hanson said she wishes she would've chosen different words, but she stands by the fact that the senior staff "wasn't trying to make a statement" and says "it should not be taken for more than it is."
The tradition began sometime in the '80s but later waned and then surfaced again in 1999, with editors keeping track of the words they got away with. Every year since, the staff act has gone largely unnoticed. Hidden words started out more benign, including "hateu," "tipsy" and "drunk," and have grown more vulgar over the years. Hanson said the staff struggled to find a word with nine letters, one for each senior column, and instead opted for a four- and a five-letter word for female and male genitalia.
Hanson hopes that her decision doesn't leave a lasting impact on the operation of the student newspaper.
"It is within their rights to yell at us, but it is not within their rights to withhold our records and prohibit us from getting a diploma," she said. Hanson said she has been meeting with an attorney who is interested in taking their case and has received a joint letter from the Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, saying they were within their bounds to print what they did. But she's hoping it won't escalate to a lawsuit.
The Chronicle distributes 15,000 newspapers every Monday through Thursday and publishes a weekend tabloid edition on Fridays. In the past, the staff has taken fire for, among other things, printing a story on prostitution as a viable profession and a satirical piece about the pope. Other editorial content has attracted attention from administrators. This, coupled with the financial situation at the paper, has kept it on the president's radar.
A woman in the dean's office said it had no comment on the issue.
As it stands, the students have an appointment to meet with the dean later next week, almost a week after Friday's graduation ceremony. But the incoming staff of the Chronicle, which in recent years has struggled to pay back a $70,000 deficit brought on by overspending and the economic downturn, intends to present the budget to administrators sometime in the coming weeks.
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