Don’t be the punchline of an April Fools’ mistake

By Mike Hiestand

Three newspapers decide to navigate the waters of satire and comedy. Only one’s readership, however, seems to get the joke.

Newspaper 1: As part of an April Fools’ edition, a high school student newspaper features a satirical column that makes several negative references about homosexuals and labels some named students at the school as “freaks.”

Newspaper 2: A university student paper features several April Fools’ Day spoofs, including a sex-advice column that advocates rape.

Newspaper 3: A national publication’s headline reads: “White House Celebrates Fifth Straight Year Without Oral Sex.” The story is filled with quotes – including one from President Bush – and mentions several prominent Washington politicians.

All three papers were trying to be funny. But only the national publication, The Onion, which publishes a weekly parody newspaper, didn’t have to endure a rash of protests, staff terminations, administrative censorship, publication thefts – and, in the case of the high school paper, the brief threat of legal action.

While America’s student media have a long – and frequently entertaining and successful – history of poking fun, too often the “joke” ends up being on the student publication itself, with student media staff targeted by angry readers – and in a few cases, their lawyers.

Being Funny Ain’t Easy
There are a number of reasons student media have sometimes had a tough time with April Fools’ or other spoof issues. One hurdle is reader expectation. The Onion’s business is satire. Its readers know what to expect even before they open it. They read with their tongue-in-cheek and their Sense of Humor switch in the full “On” position. On the other hand, many student newspapers limit their attempts at humor to a once-a-year, April Fools’ edition. Most of the time they publish “straight news,” staking their credibility on providing accurate and reliable information. Some of their readers simply don’t expect – and don’t appreciate – punch lines with their “news.”

The other big reason, quite simply, is that being funny is hard work. An issue of satire, parody, jokes and spoofs – if done well – should probably be the hardest, most time-consuming issue of the year. It also requires considerable talent. Too many students confuse a true knack for the painfully creative craft of humor writing with the use of cheap, personal shots and an overdose of foul language and off-color fare.

For these reasons, some student media organizations have simply nixed spoof issues entirely, finding them not worth the effort and risk. For those who want to give humor a go, however, there are several things they can do to prevent legal and ethical fires – and have a good laugh at the same time.

The Importance of “Getting” the Joke
Generally, it is not a defense to a libel lawsuit to claim that you were “just trying to be funny.” “Humor” is not necessarily the same as “opinion,” and does not enjoy blanket protection from lawsuits. For example, while cartoons are typically pegged as places for jokes and kidding about, some comic strips – particularly those that are politically oriented – often walk a fine line, mixing facts and fun. This can be dangerous.

If you decide to set sail on the sea of satire, make sure the readers know your bearings. As courts have noted: “The principle is clear that a person shall not be allowed to murder another’s reputation in jest.” Even so, if a statement cannot reasonably be interpreted to be one of express or implied fact, it cannot be libelous. This means that humor columns, spoofs, cartoons and satire are on safe legal ground as long as readers understand that the material is not intended to be taken seriously. (I’m speaking here mainly of protection from successful claims of libel and invasion of privacy. Keep in mind that while copyright law does provide extra “breathing room” to works of parody and satire, being funny does not provide an unlimited license to use the protected material of others without permission.)

Because of the risks – and their general inexperience with humor – student journalists must exercise added judgment and common sense when engaged in lampoonery. A biting personal attack that seemed hilarious at midnight in the newsroom might not appear as funny to a jury in a brightly lit courtroom. If you intend something as a joke, be sure that everyone will recognize it as one.

Resist inserting spoof columns between genuine news stories or editorials. Tip readers off as to your humorous intentions by saving your funny stuff for a “Funny Page” or a clearly labeled “April Fools'” issue with a name and look that distinguishes it from your “real” paper. A prominent disclaimer (for example, “Parody – Not to be Taken Seriously”) might not provide absolute protection from liability, but it can be a helpful safeguard.

Subtlety may be tempting and fun; it is also risky. For example, saying that the principal missed a week of work because she was kidnapped by aliens is safe; saying that she missed a week of work because she was in drug rehab is much more dangerous.

In close cases, it may even be helpful to obtain the consent of the person satirized. Generally, a person who consents to the publication of an article about him cannot later sue for libel. If the target of the joke does not see the fun and refuses to consent, perhaps it is time to rethink your humor. Mean is rarely funny. Also, remember that the law is more forgiving when your satire or spoof column addresses an issue of public – as opposed to merely a private – interest.

Keep in mind, too, that posting a humor issue online presents special problems. Online readers generally pull up one story at a time and pages are usually not displayed in the context of an entire spoof issue, where other outlandish headlines and unusual layout features would help clue the reader into the “joke.” Archived, online stories can also be found and read years after they were initially published, and sometimes long after an “obvious” fabrication is readily apparent. If you insist on publishing online, you may want to consider doing so in a PDF-format, where the entire issue must be downloaded. At the very least, you will want to make sure that each story from your spoof issue is clearly and permanently marked as such.

Finally, even if you’re not worried about publishing something that will land you in court, always consider other consequences that might result from a joke issue gone awry.

As Harry Kloman, news adviser to the Pitt News at the University of Pittsburgh, warns in a memo about April Fools’ issues that he distributes to his student staff each year, “After spending a full year developing your credibility as a newspaper, just one bad, tasteless or sophomoric April Fool’s story can obliterate it.”

Funny is good. But knowing what is funny and what is not is the (sometimes very) hard part. There is, unfortunately, a reason that April 2 is often the busiest day of the year for us at the Student Press Law Center.