The Right to Satire

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Clip from the 2010 issue of the DisreGuardian

The practice of satire within media is one that has come under both intense scrutiny and passionate defense after the tragic attack on the offices of French magazine “Charlie Hedbo” earlier this year. Although the UCSD Guardian issue that you hold in your hands today is wholly lighthearted, the right to publish it was hard-won, as satire is often caught in a nebulous area between the right to free press and protection against flat-out defamation.

A recent excavation of the Guardian’s own archives yielded an interesting footnote about our April Fools’ Day issues, which showed that satire, or some version of it, has been thrust into a harsh spotlight on our campus, too.

Just over a decade after UCSD was founded and only a few years after the campus paper began to print, the editor-in-chief, David Buchbinder, ‘74, was fired by the administration over the April Fools’ issue, which it and many student groups claimed had contained inexcusably offensive material.

As we continue our April Fools’ Day tradition with this year’s DisreGuardian, we decided to talk to Buchbinder four decades later and reflect on the extent of our responsibilities and privileges in producing satire as a college media organization.

During Buchbinder’s time at UCSD, the area surrounding campus was completely empty. The sprawling apartment communities and chain restaurants of Westfield Shoppingtown UTC today were once open prairie. Students could drive to Torrey Pines, spend an hour in the surf and be back in time for their afternoon classes without the headache of La Jolla traffic.

The campus paper, then called the Triton Times, published twice weekly on Tuesdays and Fridays. But Buchbinder says the staff was frequently in the office writing and publishing daily to keep up with the stream of Vietnam War-era activism that permeated the campus. And just as the mass student protests began to wind down, the Watergate scandal sent a fresh wave of outrage for the Triton Times’ printers.

Buchbinder served as editor-in-chief of the Triton Times from 1972–74, and it’s the small gap in his tenure — following an unceremonious firing and re-instatement — that offers the most interesting story.

On the day of production for the April Fools’ issue of 1974, Buchbinder recalls that the small staff of the Triton Times gathered around a table to

Clip from the 2010 issue of the DisreGuardian
Clip from the 2010 issue of the DisreGuardian

decide which articles would stay and which would go.

“We cut out a lot of content; we said, ‘Oh, this is okay; this is too over the line,’” Buchbinder said. “What we ended up publishing was a version of the paper that the staff — including our [racial] minority staff members — had agreed on.”

Despite their efforts, the issue came under fire almost immediately after its publication, over stories like “Four-in-One: University Fills Quota,” which described a new faculty member who fulfilled minority requirements by being a black, American-Indian woman.

Some staff members, like Larry Deckel, Revelle College ‘75, now consider these stories and side with the groups that accused the Triton Times of insensitivity.

“Looked at today through different prisms, these stories would clearly be deemed insensitive and inappropriate as they made fun of racial stereotypes,” Deckel said in a UCSD Alumni Magazine article. “But this was in an era before political correctness had even been invented. We thought we were doing bold satire. We were naïve.”

Buchbinder argued that the articles were never meant to be taken at face value but instead were making fun of administrative shortfalls.

“They were jokes. We were poking fun at the administration, not individuals,” he said.

Clip from the 2010 issue of the DisreGuardian
Clip from the 2010 issue of the DisreGuardian

At the time, the retaliation against the issue came swiftly, with the Communications Board, the Triton Times’ governing body, calling for the UCSD chancellor to dismiss Buchbinder. It added that the paper had been “consistently insensitive” to people of color at the university.

Buchbinder was dismissed from his post by the administration following a trial, 10 days after the April Fools’ issue came out. However, he says the decision had little effect on his desire to stay at the paper.

“I wasn’t being paid anymore, but I was still in the office,” Buchbinder recounted. “I was still running things day-to-day.”

In the aftermath of his termination, Buchbinder said letters from around campus came pouring in, many expressing that they understood the sarcastic intent behind the articles in question. Their appeals, in conjunction with those of the Triton Times’ staff, were apparently enough for the administration to overturn its decision and reinstate Buchbinder to his post.

Today, Buchbinder is an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, a career he feels was strongly influenced by his time at the newspaper.

When asked if he regrets the April Fools’ issue that resulted in his temporary ousting, Buchbinder gives a classic answer true to an era of student defiance.

“I would do all of it all over again,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

The production of the April Fools’ issue at the Guardian has been inconsistent at best and has even prompted the resignation of staff members who are opposed to it. While the skew of our articles has changed over the years, the ability to publish satire without fearing for our jobs or our academic careers is something we don’t take lightly. And one idea we share with the Triton Times’ editors is that this issue is the perfect place to skewer our administration.