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University of Utah student newspaper prank prompts administration to put hold on transcripts

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A prank literally spelled out in the University of Utah student newspaper has prompted administrators to put a hold on nine students' transcripts.

The seniors wrote goodbye columns for The Daily Utah Chronicle's April 28 edition. The first letter of each column is in larger type; together, they spell out two words referring to genitalia. One is penis; the other is a derogatory word for female genitalia.

Editor Rachel Hanson, one of the nine seniors, said she's concerned the administration's response could violate freedom of the press.

"It was childish and stupid, but it's not a cause for institutional notice," said Jim Fisher, an associate professor of communication and the paper's faculty adviser. "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."

The Chronicle has a tradition of hiding vulgar or racy phrases in the year's final edition. But in the past, the words were better hidden and in some cases have been tamer, like "drunk."

Students earlier this week got e-mails informing them of the holds on their transcripts and requesting a meeting with the associate dean of students.

The e-mail Hanson got said the students may have engaged in "intentional disruption or obstruction of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary proceedings or other University activities," which could be grounds for disciplinary action.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Student Press Law Center wrote a letter to university officials defending the students' actions.

"While the content in question might offend members of the campus community, it is unquestionably protected expression under the First Amendment," the letter said.

University Vice President for Student Affairs Barb Snyder told The Associated Press that all nine students were allowed to participate in commencement activities Friday. She said the hold on each student's file would be removed after they meet with the associate dean to discuss the matter.

"We're not in any way trying to interfere with their free speech rights," Snyder said. "The language used was offensive to many members of the university community ... men as well as women."

"We're just having a conversation about the motivation and what they learned from it, if anything," Snyder added.

Writer Michael McFall said that while he defends the use of the word penis, he thinks the group abused its freedoms by printing the other word.

"We meant it in the anatomical opposite to penis," he told The Salt Lake Tribune. "We overlooked" that the word is derogatory to women, McFall added.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com