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To work for the student newspaper at Brigham Young University, you must first understand what you cannot write about.
Students aren’t allowed to report anything that’s critical of the school or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns it. That includes any mention of the faith’s past support for polygamy or segregation that “could cause embarrassment” now.
Reporters should also avoid the topics of drugs, sex education, birth control, evolution and other “claims of science,” according to rules established for the publication in the 1970s that largely remain in place today. At the time, there was also a specific ban on any stories about “acid rock music.”
(The university president then wasn’t a fan of Pink Floyd, a band he considered “evil.”)
One communication student noted: “I feel like there’s 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, one group is trying a different approach. A few of them have left the staff at the school’s paper, The Daily Universe, and have launched their own underground, independent publication not controlled by BYU.
Their new paper, Prodigal Press, covers what happens on campus without the limitations that come with the university’s sanction.
“We talk about things that aren’t allowed to be talked about in other media outlets on campus,” said Martha Harris, a senior in the school’s journalism program who was frustrated by the “minefield of censorship, both spoken and unspoken” at the official newspaper.
Harris reported the cover story for the second issue of Prodigal Press, a piece on discrimination LGBTQ students describe encountering at the conservative Provo school. The story included Harris’ personal experiences, as someone who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, choosing a restroom on campus and being called derogatory names. The same pitch was rejected at the campus paper.
“That would never appear in The Daily Universe,” Harris noted. “They just wouldn’t even consider it.”
Isabella Olson, a sophomore who does social media for Prodigal Press, said that’s the point — to cover subjects that would be ignored or blocked by the school. They’re not trying to attack BYU or the church or even the student newspaper, she noted. They just want to highlight perspectives that aren’t always given space.
“Without a platform that is unbiased, you can’t have truth,” Olson said. “We’re not being critical. We’re just being honest. And I think it’s very important, especially at a school like BYU where I would go as far to say things are censored, to have an independent voice. "
A history of secret papers
This isn’t the first time students at BYU have published an underground newspaper.
In fact, the private university has a rich legacy of independent publications that started as early as 1906. The first, titled The Radical, printed one 32-page edition that called for a cafeteria on campus and more resources at the library. The requests were granted.
Another paper in the 1980s, called Seventh East Press, was able to pay to print issues after its editor sold his car for cash. The students famously published an interview with an academic who was critical of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, which caused the then-president of BYU to banish the publication from campus. Students caught reading it faced discipline.
After that, the biggest underground newspaper, The Student Review, started in 1986 and printed 15,000 copies at its height. It operated for about two decades entirely off campus, after what happened with Seventh East Press.
David Clove, a junior in political science who created Prodigal Press, said stumbling onto those earlier papers last summer inspired him. “That really provided the spark,” he said. “And I realized I had to do something.”
He had been feeling frustrated that there wasn’t a space where he and other students could openly publish their thoughts about BYU, on the good and bad, what was working and how things could be better.
“There was just this void,” Clove said. “There are topics that everyone just stays away from. But I wanted to talk about them. And I knew people who wanted to talk about them. It was the same reason why all those other papers existed.”
He added: “They knew that there needed 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, a junior in graphic design, said she was surprised by Clove’s idea and surprised that she didn’t hesitate to join the cause.
“I never saw myself working at a secret, underground paper that’s occasionally critiquing my university,” she said with a laugh.
When she worked at BYU’s broadcast station, she knew there were things they couldn’t report on. The “most political story” they did, Lee said, was about an Indigenous museum.
“We were told to stray away from anything that was more political than that,” she said. “I didn’t realize what kind of a silencing effect that had. The museum wasn’t even political anyway.”
Together, Clove and Lee formed a team of six student editors and about 30 contributors, and their advisor is Bill Kelly, a BYU alumnus who co-founded The Student Review.
The first Prodigal Press launched in September, and they have published eight issues. The staff has tackled things like racism in the LDS Church and on campus, school police, feminism and the monopoly between BYU and landlords in Provo.
There was a graphic from a student showing how many times she’d been sexually assaulted at BYU. They printed an essay about whether the university really cares about its Black students. They featured students, too, questioning their faith.
There has been a long gap since the last underground paper printed at BYU. Clove said the name Prodigal Press plays off the parable of the prodigal son in the Bible — though he jokes they haven’t been welcomed back with such open arms as the man in the story — and signifies a return of an independent newspaper to campus readers.
He wants this one to stay.
Concerns about university pushback
Even though the founders call it a student newspaper, Prodigal Press is not technically distributed to students anywhere on campus — at least not intentionally. It’s not allowed to be, Clove said, because it’s not approved by the private school.
Instead, the staff members get together off campus every month to fold a few hundred copies of the paper and distribute them to local restaurants and coffee shops around Provo. (Yes, they find it funny to be at coffee shops when coffee is also not allowed at the school.)
But they also have something the other unsanctioned papers before them didn’t: the internet. And sometimes, they end up on campus anyway through that.
“That’s made a huge difference in how far our reach is,” Clove said. “It’s really amazing. We’re definitely getting to students that way. Some are brave enough to go to our site on BYU’s computers.”
It hasn’t been blocked yet, he added with a laugh.
Prodigal Press has more than 1,000 followers on Instagram, its most popular online platform. And it gets about 3,000 readers, on average, on the stories posted to its website, prodigalpress.org.
So far, they’ve financed the publication with advertisements, donations and support from about 100 people who pay to have it mailed to their homes.
There’s always some concern that the university might try to penalize the students who are involved. BYU’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Some of the students who write stories for the paper do so anonymously or only once they’ve graduated. That includes some LGBTQ students who don’t want to be reported and possibly expelled for having same-sex relationships, which break the campus Honor Code.
Helaman Sanchez, a graduate, wrote a piece for Prodigal Press about how the leadership of the LDS Church has said it supports Black Lives Matter but hasn’t taken 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 policy and opinion publication at the school. He said he was told he couldn’t call out church leadership like that. But he was frustrated by his experience in the faith and on campus where he was often told to “go back to Africa” or had people shout “White Lives Matter” at him.
“Somehow that’s OK but my piece calling attention to the problem was not,” Sanchez said. “I felt silenced. I’m glad the Prodigal Press gave me the space to say what I needed to.”
One of the editors at Prodigal Press published a piece under the pen name Lou Tenant, meant to sound like lieutenant, to criticize campus police and previous actions by the department to report victims of sexual assault to BYU’s Honor Code Office. The staff put up “Defund BYUPD” stickers around downtown Provo with QR codes that linked to the story.
“It was really edgy,” Olson acknowledged. “But it was also one of our most read articles. I don’t know if we’re doing anything that BYU could punish us for. But I’m willing to stand up for what I believe in. All these voices we’re getting out there deserve to be heard. They wouldn’t be heard otherwise.”
Grant Frazier, a junior who works for the newspaper, said he knows there are risks with the publication and any effort to speak out against the university.
He previously helped lead protests against the Honor Code Office in 2019. He requested his transcripts immediately after that, afraid that he would be expelled.
Frazier and Harris, though, want the university to understand that their purpose is to make things better. And they believe that requires a platform to talk about what’s not working that is independent from the institution. (They point out that the LDS Church also owns The Deseret News.).
Some of the students say the experience has helped them learn to think independently and a few, including Harris, want to go into journalism as a career. Above all, though, they still want people to know that they’re proud students of BYU and members of the church.
With that in mind, Frazier was the one who came up with the tagline for the newspaper, which he believes gets at the balance they’re aiming for in their reporting with Prodigal Press, which so far hasn’t included anything on acid rock music.
Under the underground newspaper’s masthead on each issue, it reads: “Not quite holy, not quite heretical.”