MISSISSIPPI — Almost half of the press run of the University of Southern Mississippi’s student newspaper disappeared from racks last week, but editors say the police are reluctant to investigate the theft because the newspaper is free.
Student Printz Executive Editor David McRaney said between 2,000 and 4,000 copies of the Nov. 2 edition of the bi-weekly publication were taken from the racks, with some being thrown into nearby trashcans. He said while he does have theories about why the papers were stolen, he would not go so far as to place blame.
“I have no idea why,” McRaney said. “I have a lot of suspicions, but no proof.”
McRaney said he and his staff received reports throughout the day of disappearing newspapers. One of the paper’s distributors came to his office citing an abnormal disappearance of papers from the liberal arts building just hours after they were placed, he said.
During a news staff meeting, the paper’s news editor received a phone call from a friend in the school’s cafeteria who said they had seen a group of young women taking copies of the paper and throwing them in the trash.
McRaney and his adviser, Maggie Williams, said they attempted to file a police report with campus authorities that Thursday night, but the campus police asked them to wait and contact an investigator on Friday.
The police gave the newspaper’s staff “the run-around,” McRaney said.
“They pretty much just told us they were hesitant to do anything,” McRaney said. “Their stance continues to be that the paper is free and that you don’t have to pay to receive the paper. They don’t want to deal with it.”
University of Southern Mississippi Police Chief Bob Hopkins said he had no written report and that editors could not say who they spoke to on the day the newspapers were taken, but that he has since been contacted and is beginning an investigation.
Hopkins said he told student editors that while no criminal charges can be filed “because the paper was free,” the police will investigate the theft and turn any student identified over to the school’s dean of students for disciplinary action.
Hopkins said that if those responsible are not students, it will be “difficult” to charge them “being that it is a student paper and it is free.”
While Mississippi does not have a specific free newspaper theft law, other states have prosecuted newspaper thieves under general theft statutes.
McRaney said the Student Printz contains a disclaimer that states the first four copies of the Printz are free, with every copy afterward costing .25 cents. The disclaimer was placed on the newspapers a few years ago after a request from the police department, he said.
The newspaper has come under fire recently from student religious groups and administrators for a sex column called Pillow Talk. University of Southern Mississippi President Shelby Thames was openly critical, saying in an October letter to editors that “I vigorously oppose the printing of the Pillow Talk column … and characterize the content as offensive to the quality and respectability of our student body and institution,” according to the Associated Press.
McRaney said although he conceded that the papers could have been taken because of the Pillow Talk column, which was in the edition, the complaints have mainly been from religious organizations and administrators, not students.
McRaney also said that the stolen paper’s front-page story exploring a recent Playboy Magazine visit to campus had an unintentional error. One of the women posing for the Playboy shoot was misidentified as a member of the Chi Omega sorority. McRaney said the paper ran a correction on its Web site and in its Nov. 7 print edition that the woman was a former member of the campus group.
“She was wearing a Chi Omega shirt with the emblem on it, she never said that she wasn’t a member,” McRaney said. “We got phone calls saying that she was not a member but a former member.”
McRaney said he is focusing on putting out the next edition of Student Printz before considering his other options, including going to the local Hattiesburg Police Department.