WISCONSIN — In what they say was just goodfun, three University of Wisconsin at River Falls students held 2,000 copies ofthe student newspaper for ransom late last month, but their prank has landedthem in trouble with the university. Calling themselves the “Army of theFlying Squirrel” in notes left in empty distribution bins across campus on April25, the undergraduate students e-mailed Student Voice Editor Jen Cullenand demanded she publish on the front page a picture of a flying squirrel, nakedpictures of actress Bea Arthur and a football helmet full of cottagecheese.The e-mail did not list the culprit’s motive forconfiscating the newspapers, but one demand suggested the group’sself-proclaimed leader was not a fan of the weekly publication. “Iwant a public apology by the Student Voice for everything it has everprinted. You can make an article out of it. It might be a little moreinteresting than the typical dribble you print.” The e-mail was signed“Squirrel Master, a.k.a. ‘Big Nut.’”If thedemands were not met, the student threatened, “Your paper will befall yetanother travesty. If you want that paper to be seen next week, I suggest youtake our demands seriously.” The prank began to unravel whenstacks of the April 25 edition were found in front of a chemistry professor’soffice and were redistributed that day. Students editors contacted campus policeand initiated an investigation themselves, in which they traced an e-mail sentto the newspaper. Voice editors asked an university IT staffmember to search the campus computer logs and determined Ashton Flinders waslogged into a computer lab computer when the e-mails from Squirrel Master weresent.Cullen said Flinders, Chris Riepe and Bobby Wicklund have admittedto stealing the newspaper and apologized to Voice adviser Pat Berg andjournalism department Chair Colleen Callahan on April 28. They could now facepunishment by the university.Cullen said the Student Voice haspressed charges against the students through a University of Wisconsin systemmisconduct policy that states the university is an “environment that is safefrom violence and free of harassment, fraud, theft, disruption andintimidation.” The judicial proceeding in front of the UniversityHearing Committee is set for May 13. If found guilty, the students could facepunishment ranging from a reprimand to expulsion, said university spokespersonMark Kinders.Meanwhile, the newspaper theft aroused debate on campuswhether stealing free newspapers can be construed as a crime. Chemistrydepartment chair Jeff Rosenthal said he let a couple of students into the officeof Chemistry professor Kevin McLaughlin so they could deposit the papers. Hesaid the students told him they were “pulling a prank on theirprofessor.”After receiving a tip, Cullen said Voice staff membersfound about 2,000 copies of the paper’s 3,400 press run outside of McLaughlin’soffice where they had been moved.Cullen said McLaughlin, who could notbe reached for comment from the SPLC, told her the confiscation was a“harmless prank” and refused to divulge information about who placedthe papers there. Rosenthal said, “In retrospect he would not have doneit.” He called the theft an isolated incident and said whether the students aredisciplined or not is up to the hearing committee.At the end of theirlist of eight demands, the students argued for their right to take freenewspapers.“Remember: once you put that paper on the stands it isfree property, hence we cannot be punished or reprimanded for what we havedone,” the students wrote.However, colleges and courts have punishedindividuals caught taking free-distribution newspapers. Kinders said theuniversity is not considering the newspaper theft a crime, but it could be asanctionable offense. Although the Student Voice is free, he saidstealing newspapers can cause real monetary loss of advertising revenue andprinting and salary expenses. And, Kinders said all students on campus pay tohave the newspaper through activity fees. “We don’t look at this as justa prank,” he said. “Stealing the Student Voice deprives the campus of agreat communication tool.”The students did not respond to an e-mailrequest for comment but wrote in the e-mail to Cullen, “Squirrel Masterremembers watching movies where college was nothing but pranks. Didn’t youever see ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’ ‘Animal House’ or ‘PCU?’”Thestudents also retracted all previously stated demands except to have a pictureof a flying squirrel in the newspaper. The students added, “We squirrelsunderstand that you have put time and effort into the paper, but the papers wereput in an area where they would be easy to find and accessible. It’s notlike we threw them away or burned them.”Cullen said although shebelieves the culprits were unaware of the seriousness of stealing newspapers,she wants them punished.“It kind of hurt that somebody would thinkit was funny, some kind of harmless prank, to steal papers that we put so muchstock into,” Cullen said. “You can apologize all you want, butI’ve been in the same boat where I’ve apologized and haven’tmeant it, and that’s kind of where I feel [these] kid[s] [are] comingfrom, too. I’ve put a lot of time into this, so I think [they] should payfor it.”