Prosecutors have been tough on student newspaper thieves this school year, pressing charges against four people accused of stealing newspapers in two unrelated cases — all in one month.
The charges are particularly noteworthy because out of 129 newspaper thefts reported to the SPLC over the past five years, there has only been one successful criminal prosecution of a newspaper theft during that time.
Strong evidence may be the principle reason these newspaper thefts led to criminal charges. However, in the case at University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, a policy advocated by the Student Press Law Center in which the price for taking more than one newspaper is placed on copies of free distribution newspapers may have been a determining factor in the decision to press charges.
The case in Kentucky
Rowan County officials in Kentucky showed they take newspaper theft seriously when three students were charged in October with criminal mischief for allegedly stealing 7,000 copies of The Trailblazer, Morehead State University’s student newspaper.
Danielle Brown, 22, Andrea Sharp, 22, and Jennie Williams, 20, were charged with third degree criminal mischief for their alleged involvement in the newspaper theft, according to the criminal complaint.
The three women “voluntarily came in and signed a written statement, admitted to the offense,” the complaint said.
However, at a hearing on Oct. 19, the three girls pled not guilty to the charges in a Rowan County district court.
“I’m just really confused,” said Ashley Sorrell, editor in chief of The Trailblazer. Sorrell said she thought the girls had made a deal with the district attorney to plead guilty.
The district attorney said he could not comment about an ongoing case.
An article in The Trailblazer reported that Keith McCormick, Sharp’s lawyer, had requested a separate plea for her, because the facts in her case were different from the other two. The judge denied the request, and all three pled not guilty.
The theft that brought about the charges took place on Sept. 22. That evening 7,000 copies of the paper were stolen from 31 on-campus and 15 off-campus newspaper racks.
“Every single one put out for public consumption was taken,” said Joan Atkins, The Trailblazer‘s adviser.
Editors of the paper said they believe the papers were stolen by members of fraternities and sororities in reaction to a story about a sexual assault in an off-campus house.
“There was a phone call to our editor’s line [Sept. 21] by a student who told us we needed to retract the story or we’ll destroy the papers, but we didn’t think they’d really do it,” Atkins said. The caller did not identify herself, and campus police said they have not yet identified the caller.
The maximum penalty for a third degree criminal mischief charge — a class B misdemeanor — is a $250 fine and less than 90 days in jail, said Lt. James Frazier, a detective working the case for the campus police department.
The pre-trial hearing was scheduled for Dec. 14.
While criminal charges against student newspaper thieves are rare, this is not the first time that a prosecutor in Kentucky has filed charges against suspects of newspaper theft. In 1997, a Fayette County prosecutor filed criminal mischief charges against three University of Kentucky students for stealing approximately 11,000 copies of The Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper there. The students received community service for the offense.
“There have been cases in other states where judges have struggled with the value of free newspapers. That’s not the case in Kentucky,” McCormick said.
The case in Wisconsin
After allegedly stealing 2,500 copies of The Leader, a student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Christopher Brown faced class A misdemeanor charges.
Brown is accused of stealing copies of the Sept. 28 issue of The Leader, which contained a story about him being fired from his position on the student government and vandalizing a rented van, said Leader News Editor Joe Ahlers, who wrote the story.
Ahlers said that Brown took about 500 copies of the paper when he was asked to stop by the campus police. Later in the day Ahlers said staff members saw Brown take an additional 2,000 copies of the paper from the newspaper office and douse the papers with water. Campus police arrested Brown after the dousing, but he was not charged at that time.
During that incident, Ahlers said Brown threatened him.
Leader staff filed a report with the police on Sept. 29.
“I took it seriously,” said Art Koch, detective sergeant of the UWM police. “The information out there is something everybody should have access to.”
The campus police, working with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, charged Brown with two class A misdemeanors, criminal damage to property and theft of movable property.
If found guilty, the penalty for a class A misdemeanor is a fine of up to $10,000 or as much as nine months in jail or both.
Brown is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 4, according to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court’s Web site.
Ahlers said that while he was researching how other states and schools deal with newspaper theft he came across the fact that two states, Colorado and Maryland, have passed legislation specifically identifying free distribution newspaper theft a crime.
Ahlers said that he plans to research the laws, and intends to lobby lawmakers in Wisconsin to pass a similar law.
A policy that works
The Leader is a free newspaper. However, on an inside page a policy indicates that while the first newspaper is free, additional copies cost 76 cents.
Ahlers said having the policy in place was an important factor in Brown being criminally charged.
“[Law enforcement officials] were telling us was that [policy] was one reason we could get away with charging him,” Ahlers said.
“I just looked at the circumstances and made my decision based on that,” said Assistant District Attorney Anthony White.
The criminal complaint recounting the events specifically mentions the editorial policy two different times.
In both of the cases where charges have been filed for newspaper theft, the three common denominators were obvious suspects, campus police willing to fully investigate and a prosecutor willing to press charges.