By KYLE SPENCER APRIL 10, 2014
On a recent cloudless afternoon, a group of young comedy writers — one in Ray-Bans and a floppy wizard hat, another in skateboard sneakers and funky jeans — descended upon San Diego State University’s palm-tree-dotted campus, brandishing copies of their latest creation: a 12-page broadsheet of lewd humor.
It was distribution day, or Distro, and staff members of The Koala, California’s most reviled student publication, had 8,000 copies to hand out.
“Come and get it, you know you want it,” thundered Erik Luchsinger, a 21-year-old management major, in Hawaiian swim trunks, tank top and bow tie.
“All the cool kids are reading it!” bellowed Taylor Etchart, a senior foods and nutrition major.
“Guaranteed to be funnier than your textbook!” another staff writer shouted as students whizzed by on skateboards and bicycles.
The cover featured an orgy of naked women with koala heads, clutching beer bottles, injecting illicit substances and vomiting. Inside was a list of “Top 5 Ways to Pick Up a Girl in a Burka,” a four-step instruction guide entitled “How Thou Shalt Use Thine Bible Pages to Roll One Holy Joint,” and in lieu of horoscopes, there were “Whore-o-Scopes.”
... A professor snatched a pile “to give away to the trash can.”
The Koala traffics in the kind of off-color banter even the writers recognize as offensive, though they also characterize its content as “witty” and “artistic.” Issues are peppered with jokes about homosexuals, Jews, Latinos, African-Americans, cancer patients and injured orphans. “Zimmermanslaughter” mocked the killing of the black teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of a neighborhood watch coordinator. A particularly controversial issue featured a piece with the headline “RAPE!” It advised student rapists on what to do “when you drunkenly realize she’s conscious enough to call the cops”: “Wipe off the blood and hide in the bushes NOW!” “Koala Call Outs” are anonymous reader letters filled with slurs about students and professors, who are often named or described.
The student-run tabloid has had a controversial presence across the region — at the University of California, San Diego, where it originated in 1982 and now only occasionally publishes, and at California State’s San Marcos campus, where it was shuttered more than a year ago. Here at the state university system’s San Diego campus, students routinely criticize the paper for promoting “rape culture.” Periodic editorials and campaigns denounce The Koala, including one in 2010 to persuade local businesses to discontinue advertising. Last fall, a group of students sent a letter to the university senate’s Freedom of Expression Committee demanding an end to distribution on campus.
Despite all this, The Koala seems to be flourishing. It has recouped its lost advertising dollars, and revenues are up by more than 100 percent from fall 2012 (the editorial staff is not paid). For the first time, staff members are trying to sell subscriptions to graduating seniors, to foster an alumni base, and there is a beefed-up online presence. ...
Mr. Luchsinger, who says he culls inspiration from satirists like Benjamin Franklin, views the tabloid as rebellious and boundary pushing. “This is not highbrow journalism,” he acknowledged. “But we are still trying to do something substantial.” The Koala’s mission, he says, is to tease and tweak the campus melting pot.
Juliana Bloom, who was recently promoted to editor after Mr. Luchsinger, puts it simply: “We’re a comedy publication. It’s O.K. for us to joke about serious stuff.”
... Not surprisingly, detractors don’t find anything funny here. “I dread it when it comes out,” said Susan E. Cayleff, a professor in the women’s studies department, who spends class time during Distro Days discussing The Koala. “It makes students terrified and uncomfortable and not proud to be here.”
... The battles over The Koala provide a glimpse of how challenging it can be for a university to uphold its free speech mores yet still remain a civil, welcoming place for its increasingly diverse student body. San Diego State’s code “defends the expression we abhor as well as the expression we support,” meaning The Koala can mouth off about different races and still be untouchable.
Jung Min Choi, an associate professor in the sociology department, has been one of The Koala’s most vocal critics, frequently using the paper in his classes as living exhibits of racial intolerance. In 2008, an African-American professor in his department was attacked in an anonymous reader letter: “Your dissatisfaction with being a fat, ugly and childless black woman is evident,” read part of the letter. It accused the professor of “preaching” instead of “teaching.” Dr. Choi, who specializes in race and identity, and his colleagues approached the university’s Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities about what they considered a case of faculty harassment.
“I must say I was not actually greeted very warmly,” he recalled.
Officials told him they had no intention of censuring the paper. “They have a right to be here,” Greg Block, the chief communications officer, told me. “We don’t necessarily agree with everything they publish, but that’s neither here nor there.” And when students pleaded last fall with Mark Freeman, chairman of the Freedom of Expression Committee, to help shut it down, he wrote back that “freedom of the press is very broadly protected.”
Jimmy Talamantes, a graduate student who is Mexican-American, was one of the letter signers. He called the response disappointing. “Students should not feel threatened by any person or organization while attending an institution of higher learning,” he said.
... The meeting built to a crescendo as the students tossed out ideas for one of the trademark features: “Top 5’s.” They jotted down possibilities for “Top 5 Things to Wear to a Gay Pride Parade” and “Top 5 Reasons to Marry an Illegal Immigrant,” including, as one student shouted out, “You get a free housekeeper.” Or “Cheap labor is now free.” Or “She expects the abuse.”
Responses elicited peals of laughter. “Can someone just say we are all going to hell?” one student said.
... Mr. Liddle swears his protégés are not filled with misogyny or racial animus — about half of the 25 or so staff members are women, and a handful are Asian- or Mexican-American. Their motives are pragmatic, he said: They want experience with a media outlet. Many of the staff members told me they aspire to work for television, an online magazine or media start-up.
... They said that when they first read The Koala, they were relieved to find others with a similar sensibility. “I found people who share my sick sense of humor,” Mr. Etchart said. He calls it “dark satire.” The no-holds-barred approach also appealed to Emmilly Nguyen, a freshman journalism major. Around Koala staff members, she said, “I could be myself.”
The Koala is not the only publication to mine edgy terrain. A subgroup of campus publications — The Quinnipiac Barnacle, The Medium at Rutgers and The Texas Travesty at the University of Texas, Austin — delight in routinely touching humor’s third rail.
... Staff members at The Brown Noser, founded in 2006 at Brown University, set their own limits. “We don’t write anything that feels classist or racist,” said Louisa Kellogg, an editor.
... But what of publications that don’t monitor themselves? Dr. Choi believes that’s when universities ought to step in. Administrators have a responsibility, he said, to “uphold not just legal behavior but ethical behavior as well, and some common sense about what is and isn’t funny.” He added: “When administrators don’t take a stand, it is almost as if they are supporting what these people are saying.”
Mr. Freeman interprets the university’s silence differently. “If we were able to ban any speech we didn’t like, we’d have very little debate,” he said. “For me, this is a teachable moment about the consequences and burdens of living in a democracy.”