The headline blared in the Daily Princetonian, Princeton University's student newspaper: a conservative political professor caught with a gay hooker.

That story and others in last Wednesday's issue certainly set the Ivy League campus abuzz, but not for the reason you might think.

The stories weren't true. The whole issue was a joke - an annual tradition at the paper.

But the well-known, tenured professor who was the subject of the story? He isn't laughing.

"I have the matter under review with a lawyer," professor Robert George said in a telephone interview this week. "I certainly do not want to do anything that harms Princeton University, which has been an extremely congenial home to me."

Fewer colleges are publishing joke issues as legal liabilities rise and national journalism groups advise against them. Because of their appearance and long life on the Internet, on which they appear less like satire, concerns increase even more.

Joke issues "often backfire," said Bob Steele, senior ethics faculty at the nonprofit Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. "While the intent may be to offer humor about serious issues, the quality of the humor often falls short and the other weaknesses of satire become apparent."

They also can raise legal issues, prompt ethical concerns, and hurt those who take the brunt of the satire, he said.

Princeton officials, who have no control over the student newspaper - it's an independent publication - were not pleased with the issue. They were particularly perturbed about an unflattering doctored photo of Princeton president Shirley Tilghman and a fictional letter with a byline that closely resembled that of a student of Asian ancestry who actually was denied admission to the university and filed a civil rights complaint last summer. It was written in broken English and contained racial stereotypes.

Newspaper editors apologized in the next issue, but noted that the letter was written with the help of Asian newspaper staffers and was meant to "lampoon" racism.

University officials disagreed.

The newspaper "might want us to believe that the repulsive, doctored photo of our president, for instance, was merely off-color humor in a culture saturated by such images," said a joint statement from Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life, and Kathleen Deignan, dean of undergraduate students. "They might want us to think it's fine to use offensive and derogatory stereotypes as satire if members of the targeted ethnic group help author them."

Pointing to a flood of disapproving letters, the officials said the strategy "backfired and has undermined Princeton's ongoing and determined efforts to be a more inclusive and diverse community, to remedy outmoded negative stereotypes, and to establish a climate in which community members of all ethnicities feel welcomed, respected and valued."

When does a joke issue go too far?

Russ Eshleman, who teaches journalism at Penn State, draws the line at humor that pokes fun at individuals. "I don't have a problem with joke issues, but I do have a problem with racism and sexism. I'd much rather see stories poking fun at the institution, as opposed to individuals," said Eshleman, a former Inquirer reporter.

Fewer schools have been publishing joke issues over the last 15 years, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, based in Arlington, Va.

"They're still a regular occurrence, but they're not as frequent," Goodman said, adding that they are very popular among the student body in places where they are still published.

The center has advised against joke issues because of the potential for "confusion" and therefore liability, considering that the newspaper is factual-based in every other issue.

"That said, I have to say it has been extremely rare for anyone to successfully sue over a parody or joke issue. The lawsuits happen periodically but are almost never won," he said.

The Daily Pennsylvanian compiles a joke issue every April; it hasn't been sued, said University of Pennsylvania junior Shawn Safvi, 20, executive editor.

"We go over that issue very carefully and have extra oversight to make sure all the content is appropriate," he said.

Some newspapers, however, opt against them because of the potential for problems.

"Joke issues or April Fool's issues have a lot of potential to undermine our credibility," said Erin James, 22, a senior and editor of the Daily Collegian, Penn State's student paper. "Basically, we really worry that some people just won't get it."

Charmie Snetter, 21, a Temple University senior and editor of the Temple News, agreed.

"As far as judging humor, I think it's very difficult to do that, almost too difficult, and therefore, I think, inappropriate," she said.

The Daily Princetonian parody issue is compiled by the outgoing senior board of the newspaper and runs the first day of exams - this year on Jan. 17. In their defense, staff noted that the joke issue banner - The Gaily Printsanything - should have indicated that the issue was a joke.

In the Internet version, there was a notation off to the side of the opening page and each story carried a disclaimer at the end.

But Steele, of Poynter, said that disclaimers were not sufficient.

"Journalists always have responsibility for what they publish and present. You cannot disclaim responsibility," he said.

George, the professor who was a target, said that not everyone reads to the end of an article.

"It takes on a life of its own on the Internet. . . . It's hard to conclude that it was anything but malicious and extremely irresponsible," he said.

Daily Princetonian editor Chanakya Sethi declined to be interviewed.

In referring to the item about the student of Asian ancestry, which angered Asian groups on campus, Sethi wrote in an editor's note: "There are honest differences in opinion on what is humorous and what is not, and it was a regrettable mistake on our part to think that everyone would see the column the way we do. . . . We hope the opportunity presented now for a constructive debate on race and race-related issues will not be lost."

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.