BYU Students Launch Underground Newspaper | Utah News


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By COURTNEY TANNER, The Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – To work for Brigham Young University student newspaper, you first need to understand what you can’t write about.

Students are not permitted to report anything critical about the school or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who owns it. This includes any mention of the faith’s past support for polygamy or segregation that “might cause embarrassment” now, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.

Journalists should also avoid topics on drugs, sex education, birth control, evolution and other “science claims,” ​​according to rules set for publication in the 1970s which remain largely in existence. place today. At the time, there was also a specific ban on any story on “acid rock music”.

(The university president was not a fan of Pink Floyd at the time, a group he considered “evil”.)

Political cartoons

A communications student noted, “I feel like there are just a lot of things I can’t say. But there’s not much they can do about it at the private religious school.

Now a group is trying a different approach. A few of them quit the staff of the school newspaper, The Daily Universe, and started their own underground, independent publication not controlled by BYU.

Their new journal, Prodigal Press, covers what’s happening on campus without the limitations that come with college sanction.

“We are talking about things that are forbidden to talk about in other media on campus,” Martha Harris, an elder in the school’s journalism program who was frustrated with the “minefield of censorship,” told both spoken and tacit ”in the official journal.

Harris reported on the cover of the second issue of Prodigal Press, an article about discrimination that LGBTQ students describe encountering at conservative school in Provo. The story included Harris’ personal experiences, as a non-binary person and using them / them pronouns, choosing toilets on campus and calling himself derogatory names. The same pitch was rejected by the campus newspaper.

“It would never appear in The Daily Universe,” Harris noted. “They wouldn’t even think about it.”

Isabella Olson, a sophomore who handles social media for Prodigal Press, said that was the point – to cover topics that would be ignored or blocked by the school. They are not trying to attack BYU or the church or even the student newspaper, she noted. They just want to highlight prospects that don’t always have room.

“Without an unbiased platform, you can’t have the truth,” Olson said. “We are not critical. We’re just being honest. And I think that’s very important, especially in a school like BYU where I would go so far as to say things are censored, to have an independent voice. “

This is not the first time that BYU students have published an underground newspaper.

In fact, the private university has a rich heritage of independent publications which began as early as 1906. The first, titled The Radical, printed a 32-page edition that called for an on-campus cafeteria and more library resources. The requests were granted.

Another newspaper in the 1980s called the Seventh East Press was able to pay to print issues after its editor sold his car for money. The students published a famous interview with an academic who criticized LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, which prompted the BYU president to ban the publication from campus. Students caught reading it were faced with discipline.

After that, the largest underground newspaper, The Student Review, started in 1986 and printed 15,000 copies at its peak. It operated for about two decades entirely off campus, after what happened with Seventh East Press.

David Clove, a political science junior who started Prodigal Press, said stumbling over those earlier documents last summer had inspired him. “It really provided the spark,” he said. “And I realized I had to do something.”

He had felt frustrated that there was no space where he and other students could openly post their thoughts on BYU, the good and the bad, what worked, and how things could be better.

“There was just that void,” Clove said. “There are subjects that everyone stays away from. But I wanted to talk about them. And I knew people who wanted to talk about it. It was the same reason that all these other newspapers existed.

He added: “They knew there had to be something separate from the university, something independent.”

The private school needed a public platform.

So he started making a few calls to friends. Gracia Lee, junior in graphic design, said she was surprised by Clove’s idea and surprised that she did not hesitate to join the cause.

“I have never seen myself working in a secret, underground newspaper that sometimes criticizes my university,” she said with a laugh.

When she worked at the BYU broadcast station, she knew there were things they couldn’t report on. The “most political story” they made, Lee said, was about an indigenous museum.

“We were told to stay away from anything more political than that,” she said. “I hadn’t realized what kind of effect of silence it had. The museum wasn’t even political anyway.

Together, Clove and Lee have formed a team of six student writers and about 30 contributors, and their advisor is Bill Kelly, a BYU alumnus who co-founded The Student Review.

The first Prodigal Press was launched in September and has published eight issues. Staff tackled things like racism in the LDS Church and on campus, school policing, feminism, and the monopoly between BYU and landlords in Provo.

There was a graph of a student showing how many times she had been sexually assaulted at BYU. They printed an essay on whether the university really cares about its black students. They also featured students questioning their faith.

There has been a long gap since the last underground newspaper printed at BYU. Clove said the name Prodigal Press plays the parable of the prodigal son in the Bible – although he jokes that they were not greeted with open arms like the man in the story – and signifies the return of an independent newspaper for campus readers.

He wants this one to stay.

Even though the founders call it a student newspaper, Prodigal Press is technically not distributed to students anywhere on campus – at least not intentionally. It’s not allowed, Clove said, because it’s not approved by the private school.

Instead, staff members meet off campus every month to fold a few hundred copies of the newspaper and distribute them to local restaurants and cafes around Provo. (Yes, they find it funny to be in cafes when coffee is not allowed in school either.)

But they also have something that other unauthorized newspapers didn’t have before them: the Internet. And sometimes they still end up on campus because of it.

“It made a huge difference in the extent of our reach,” Clove said. “It’s really amazing. We definitely reach students this way. Some have the courage to go to our site on BYU computers.

He hasn’t been blocked yet, he added with a laugh.

Prodigal Press has over 1,000 followers on Instagram, its most popular online platform. And it gets about 3,000 readers, on average, for the stories posted on its website, prodigalpress.org.

So far, they’ve funded the post with ads, donations, and support from around 100 people who pay to have it sent to their homes.

There is still concern that the university is trying to penalize the students involved. The BYU spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the story.

Some of the students who write stories for the newspaper do so anonymously or only after graduation. This includes some LGBTQ students who don’t want to be exposed and possibly kicked out for having same-sex relationships, which violates the campus honor code.

Helaman Sanchez, graduate, wrote an article for Prodigal Press on how the leadership of the LDS Church has said it supports Black Lives Matter but has taken no action “that would make a real difference.” He waited to publish until his diploma was in hand.

Sanchez, who identifies as Mexican-American, previously worked for BYU Political Review, a school’s politics and opinion publication. He said he was told he couldn’t call the church leaders like that. But he was frustrated with his experience in the faith and on campus where he was often told to “go back to Africa” ​​or where people shouted “White Lives Matter” to him.

“Somehow it’s okay, but my article calling attention to the problem wasn’t,” Sanchez said. “I felt silenced. I’m glad Prodigal Press gave me the space to say what I needed.

One of the Prodigal Press editors ran an article under the pen name Lou Tenant, supposedly looking like a lieutenant, to criticize campus police and the department’s previous actions to report victims of sexual assault to the office. of the BYU Honor Code. Staff affixed “Defund BYUPD” stickers in downtown Provo with QR codes linked to the story.

“It was really pissed off,” admitted Olson. “But it was also one of our most read articles. I’m not sure if we are doing something that BYU could punish us for. But I am ready to stand up for what I believe in. All of these voices we hear deserve to be heard. They would not be heard otherwise.

Grant Frazier, a junior who works for the newspaper, said he knew there were risks with the publication and any effort to expose the university.

He previously helped lead protests against the Honor Code Office in 2019. He requested his transcripts immediately after that, fearing deportation.

Frazier and Harris, however, want the university to understand that their goal is to make things better. And they think it requires a platform to talk about what isn’t working that is independent from the institution. (They point out that the LDS Church also owns The Deseret News.)

Some students say the experience has helped them learn to think independently and a few, including Harris, want a career in journalism. Most importantly, they still want people to know that they are proud BYU students and church members.

With that in mind, Frazier is the one who came up with the newspaper’s slogan, which he says strikes the balance they aim for in their reporting with Prodigal Press, which so far has not included anything on acid rock music. . .

Under the headline of the underground newspaper on each issue, it is written: “Not quite holy, not quite heretical.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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