Column: History of Hatchet April Fools

For 63 years, The GW Hatchet has done something that few college newspapers around the country are able to do, and only a handful have done for as long – print a satirical issue once a year to commemorate April Fools’ Day.

Publication of such an issue always carries a risk. At several college newspapers this year, protests erupted over some of the content. Last year, one newspaper in Florida that had published consistently since 1887 was shut down permanently and the entire editorial staff fired over a profanity-filled April Fools’ issue.

In the past week, student newspapers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Scranton and the University of Nebraska have been forced to suspend publication due to content published in their satirical issues.

This cannot happen at The GW Hatchet, which has been independent of the University for more than 10 years.

The question remains: Why would a student newspaper sacrifice its reputation and even its existence to publish an April Fools’ issue?

The newspaper staff generally lives at the paper, especially during the hectic second semester, remembered one former Hatchet editor. The April Fools’ issue has always been something to look forward to, a way for the staff to blow of steam and have fun, without really hurting anyone.

Twice, however, The Hatchet did cross the line, and ended up hurting someone – the paper itself. Once in 1951 and again in 1992, the paper did more than poke fun at college presidents, Colonials sports teams and Student Association leaders. It went too far.

In 1951, first-year reporter Warren Robinson contributed a satirical story to The GW Tomahawk, as the April Fools’ issue was named until the end of the 1980s when editors began altering the title each year. The GW Spank It, The GW Snatchit and The Jew-W SnipIt are some recent titles.

Robinson wrote a story about how Monroe Hall collapsed because of faulty construction. An editor faked a picture to go with it, showing Monroe Hall sinking into the ground.

Robinson admitted later that he got too carried away, including tidbits about the body of a professor found in the rubble and about contractors who had bribed the University.

University President Cloyd Heck Marvin, who read the story, “never did have a sense of humor, and unbeknownst to me this new building was his pride and joy,” Robinson recalled. Marvin fired the editor in chief and required the chairman of the journalism department to keep close watch over the newspaper.

In 1992, Hatchet editors published a story alleging GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and other administrators were fathered by a former GW doctor then in jail for inseminating his patients with his own sperm.

As soon as the issue went on the stands, the GW Medical Center decided The Hatchet was no longer welcome for distribution there.

The editors, with the help of Professor John Banzhaf, protested by handing out copies of the issue outside the hospital and holding a press conference to reiterate the importance of free speech and a free press. The Medical Center didn’t budge, however, and stuck to its decision to ban Hatchet distribution.

In 1993, the ban was written into The Hatchet contract for independence. The prohibition will stand until that contract is renegotiated.

Since 1941, when the first April Fools’ issue appeared, and even long before then, Hatchet editors have been criticized, manipulated, suspended and even fired for the content that appeared in its pages. One former editor in chief, Greg Valliere, even lost his deferment and was drafted into the Vietnam War because he was fired from his job at The Hatchet.

Freedom of the student press took many decades to come to fruition at GW, and our journalists, editors and staff must ever be vigilant to defend it. This is not license, of course, to libel, misrepresent or attack without reason. Vigilance with responsibility. But the freedom of the student press is the most important protection of the voice of the student body.

You may hate the content. I cannot and will not defend any of the content in this year’s April Fools’ issue. But remember for a moment what this paper has gone through in order to be able to put an issue like that on the newsstands.

The Hatchet should be celebrated, not condemned. We cannot allow our progress to be erased.

-The writer, a sophomore, is Hatchet research editor.

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