Censorship, Curse Words, and a Dodgeball Championship: Student Press Trouble at Pacific Lutheran University

Late last week, administrators at Washington’s Pacific Lutheran University briefly shut down the website of The Mooring Mast student newspaper due to an intramural dodgeball story containing some curse words.

The PLU men’s dodgeball team F-ck Sh-t Up (with all the letters included) recently lost a campus championship to its rivals Voodoo Magic.  (An FSU player attributed the defeat to overconfidence and a lack of rest and practice time between the dodgeball and flag football seasons.)

For a story on the squad’s setback, Mooring Mast sports editor Justin Buchanan crafted the headline, “F-ck Sh-t Up drops the ball” (again, with all the letters included).  The team’s name also appeared, in full, in the article.

As Buchanan explained Sunday, “We then met as an editorial board and discussed four main questions presented by editor-in-chief junior Heather Perry: 1) Did the headline represent what happened?  2) What did the AP stylebook say?  3) Was using the words worth it?  4) Are we ready to defend it?  After much discussion and debate, the majority of editors present felt the headline was worthy of press.”

PLU officials disagreed.  They pulled the story link and teaser from the paper’s homepage (on the school server) Friday morning and contacted editors, requesting the vulgarities be removed from the headline.  As the Mooring Mast itself reported, administrators said they removed the piece because the paper violated AP style rules on profanity and obscenity by running F-ck and Sh-t in full.  A spokesman separately told The News Tribune the appearance of the vulgarities on the school site was “detrimental to PLU’s image.”

After some confusion about whether they were targeting just the headline or all references, admins. shut down the paper’s entire site “so a conversation could take place.”  As a Mooring Mast story noted on Sunday, “For the first time since the 1970s, Pacific Lutheran University has exercised power to censor content in its forum for student journalistic expression.”

Editors ultimately decided to dash out the profane parts of the team’s name.  PLU put the paper’s site back online four hours later.  The piece is once again featured on it.  And Buchanan has publicly apologized for an admittedly hasty late-night headline decision.

But tensions linger over the school’s heavy-handed tactics.  In a well-written reflection on the incident, editor-in-chief Heather Perry notes, “We’re not defending what we published.  We’re defending our rights to decide our editorial content as student journalists.  That distinction should be recognized. . . . Please consider that supporting censorship is not about saying you don’t want to see profanity in our newspaper.  Supporting censorship means you support restricting the flow of information, which could prevent you from forming your own opinion on controversial topics.”

My take: PLU dropped the ball.  Administrators overreacted, choosing to temporarily silence an ENTIRE paper over a few questionable words.  The whole shebang is littered with double standards.

Double standard #1: Student intramural teams (and apparently other campus groups) are allowed to sport profanities in their names.  But the student paper isn’t allowed to refer to these teams/groups in full when they are newsworthy?

Double standard #2: The student paper’s print edition– featuring the original dodgeball piece– hit newsstands Thursday without any trouble.  A day later, PLU decided the profanities were a problem, but only online.

Double standard #3: The school lamely said the reason for the story’s takedown was its lack of adherence to AP style.  AP style is a set of unofficial guidelines, used, adapted, and ignored by news outlets at their discretion.  My guess is that like every paper there are multiple AP style snafus in every issue of the Mooring Mast, purposeful and accidental.  Has the paper ever been censored for these snafus?  Have admins. ever informed the paper it must follow AP style rules– or else?  My guess: No.  So we’ll call PLU’s sudden obsession with AP style voodoo magic– or a misdirection from what is really just a PR issue.

At least give editors the courtesy of an honest rationale: You messed with the paper because it published something you consider detrimental to the school’s image.

It’s f—ing censorship (all letters included).

6 Responses to “Censorship, Curse Words, and a Dodgeball Championship: Student Press Trouble at Pacific Lutheran University”
  1. Clare says:

    As I former PLU student I find the whole situation very interesting, but I’m not at all surprised about the censorship. Also, apparently there is some disagreement about the actual name of the team. As I understand it, the official name is FSU, just the letters, and you are left to fill in the blank. I can’t imagine PLU allowing profanity in the title of a club or organization if it is officially under the auspices of the university. I also just wanted to note your casual use of the term “snafu” to describe mistakes the paper had previously made. Snafu is an acronym, “Situation normal, all f-cked up.” (All letters included). I just found the use particularly amusing and appropriate. Nice piece from an outsider perspective.

  2. Bryan Murley says:

    Another reason not to have your site hosted on a school server. Unfortunately, private universities can pretty much do what they want in this area.

    • Dan says:

      Agree 1,000 percent. I literally sighed aloud when learning that detail. Is it a financial thing in most cases or a lack of programming know-how??

      • Bryan Murley says:

        From conversations I’ve had with some private school editors, it’s actually a control mechanism by the administrators, who won’t allow the paper to host something off the school servers. There is probably some financial and programming shortfalls, too. But some schools still aren’t even online because of small-minded administrators.

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