When free student newspapers are stolen on university campuses, campus and city police often do not believe it is a crime because they say there is no law under which to prosecute the theft. This spring, six student newspapers experienced that questionable line of thinking first hand.
When more than 2,300 copies of the Jan. 14 edition of the Daily Nexus, a student newspaper at the University of California at Santa Barbara, were found in trash cans across campus, the police initially did not take the theft seriously.
Brendan Buhler, editor of the Daily Nexus, said that when he reported the crime to the campus police, he was told that taking free newspapers was not a crime.
But years before, the Daily Nexus staff had done something that they hoped would make the police take thefts of the paper seriously; they placed a value on the newspaper. Signs were posted on distribution racks stating that the first copy of the paper was free, and each additional copy was $1.
Mark Signa, a campus police officer, said he believed that without the notices, the newspapers would be considered free and taking more than one would not constitute theft. After they were informed of the notices, the campus police began interviewing witnesses and going over tapes from video surveillance on campus. Signa said police have found no suspects.
Buhler said there was no obvious motive for the theft.
“If I had to guess, it was probably somebody who wanted to keep their name out of the paper,” Buhler said.
If the perpetrator is caught, police could charge the person with a separate count of petty theft for each location the papers were stolen from. If the perpetrator is a student, the university could also punish him or her.
“I think some good has come from [the situation],” Buhler said. “For one thing, we now have a very good relationship with the campus police department and the university’s administration. All sides agree that stealing our papers is a crime.”
The newspaper estimated that it lost about $2,300 because of the theft.
More than 2,500 copies of a left-leaning alternative student newspaper at the University of Southern California had been distributed when the newspaper staff began to suspect that some had been stolen.
Joshua Holland, assignments editor of The Trojan Horse, said another staff member witnessed an individual taking a large stack of the Jan. 27 edition of the newspaper, which confirmed his suspicion that the newspaper had fallen victim to theft. He said that because some were taken legitimately, it is impossible to know exactly how many were stolen.
Holland said he suspects pro-Israel students were involved in the theft because the paper included stories that “didn’t paint Israeli occupation in as positive a light as the mainstream media.”
Holland said the newspaper would consider pressing charges, but other than the eyewitness, there is little evidence of the theft.
The crime was not reported to police.
At the University of Memphis, staff members of a student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, found nearly 800 copies of the Jan. 29 edition of the newspaper in a trash bin. The students were told that because the papers were found intact and the students put them back on the rack before they notified the police, officials did not consider the incident theft.
Derek Myers, the university’s public safety deputy director, said there is no law that fits the situation. “[If the perpetrator is found], it will become some sort of a theft charge, but this is something that’s so strange as far as trying to fit the crime to an actual statute,” Myers said.
The crime is being investigated as malicious mischief.
Newspaper staff members said they were told that the custodial staff might be responsible for throwing away the newspapers because they were aggravated with students who tended to throw the papers on the floor after reading them.
Calvin Strong, director of landscape and custodial services for the school, said he spoke with the building’s supervisor and was assured that the employees had no part in the theft.
Stephanie Myers, editor of The Daily Helmsman, said the newspaper has since published an article explaining how the incident “could be considered pre-emptive censorship or theft.” But she said that since the theft, the university has taken no disciplinary action against any students or staff members.
The newspaper does not have an estimated loss value.
The Philadelphia Police Department would only take a report for “missing property” when hundreds of copies of The Triangle, a student newspaper at Drexel University, were stolen from at least one building’s distribution rack and used as a prank against a dorm resident.
Chris Duffy, The Triangle’s editor, said he found photographs of the apparent prank on a freshman student’s online journal. He said the photos showed several hundred copies of the newspaper “piled up and crumpled in a dorm room.”
Duffy said that while the city police were little help, the school’s department of public safety officers were “very helpful” and said they would investigate the crime. Duffy said the public safety officers planned to question the student operating the online journal.
Duffy said the stolen newspapers’ value was approximately $3,000.
Duffy said that the newspaper publishes a notice stating that “The Triangle is free to members of the Drexel community, but distribution is limited to one copy per reader,” but he is considering clarifying that statement and establishing a specific price for additional copies.
If the thief is caught, Duffy said he will pursue disciplinary action through the school’s judicial system.
Staff members of a student newspaper at Laramie County Community College believe nearly 30 percent of the March 8 edition of The Wingspan were stolen from racks on campus.
Ashley Colgan, co-editor of The Wingspan, said the theft of nearly 300 papers cost the paper about $1,083 in lost advertising revenue and labor and printing costs. Colgan believes the theft stems from an incident with a student government member.
Colgan said she wrote an editorial about the student government’s attempt to bring tobacco sales to campus and quoted a student government member in the editorial. She said the person was upset because he had been quoted in the article.
“He then wrote us a letter to the editor,” Colgan said. “And he became upset when we printed his letter to the editor.”
Colgan said she reported the theft to campus security and the sheriff’s office but was told that because there is nothing written in Wyoming law about the theft of free newspapers it was not a criminal matter.
“The one problem that we have with the individual we suspect is there is no proof of his involvement,” Colgan said. “So we’re kind of stuck, but if we get solid evidence, we definitely want to pursue it.”
The student government president at Binghamton University admitted to throwing away approximately 50 copies of The Binghamton Review, a student-run conservative magazine. But he said the crime was justified because other students “donated” their copies to him.
James Amberger, the paper’s associate editor, said he caught Jordan Peck throwing away the magazine March 2. Peck admitted responsibility in an article in the Pipe Dream, another student newspaper.
According to a notice in the magazine, each student is entitled to two copies and each additional copy is $1.
Amberger said he is not planning on pursuing criminal charges, but expects the university to punish Peck. Amberger said he sent Peck a bill for $48, the cost of the magazines that Peck admitted to throwing out. Amberger said Peck has not responded to the bill.