Newspaper theft on the rise

The number ofnewspaper theft incidents is on the rise compared to previous years’statistics, with 15 incidents reported to the Student Press Law Center thus farthis school year. 

In 2004 and 2005, only eight incidents each year had beenreported by the end of the fall semester.While advisers and experts saythey are unsure why there have been a higher number of thefts reported thisfall, a variety of factors could be to blame ‘ from the way administratorshave handled theft cases in the past to an increased awareness of campusnewspaper theft coverage. 

Many of the reported incidents were connected tocontroversial articles published in the papers.

“It’s a signthat the problem of newspaper theft is not going away,” said Mark Goodman,executive director of the Student Press Law Center. 

Goodman also saidtheft is an “inappropriate response” to disagreements with apublication and that administrators can do more to prevent it. 

At theUniversity of Kentucky, about 4,000 copies of the student newspaper, TheKentucky Kernel, were taken from news stands in November. 

The stolen issuefeatured an article about a toxicology report stating that alcohol may have beeninvolved in the deaths of two students and an alumna earlier in the year.Student editors said they were not surprised to find copies missing becausefamily and friends of the deceased pleaded with the editors not to print thearticle on the toxicology report. 

Campus police are still investigating thetheft.At the University of Tulsa, students took copies of TheCollegian from distribution bins in November and returned them withunauthorized inserts depicting a newspaper staff member extending her middlefinger. 

Editors believe the act was in retaliation for an article published inthe issue about an investigation into the student government’s fundallocation procedures. Tulsa administrators say that they are actively pursuingthe case and are investigating individuals who may have beeninvolved.

The conservative student newspaper GuardDawg atUniversity of Georgia had 1,200 copies of their paper stolen and theirdistribution bins vandalized in September. Staff members found the bins with thewords ‘communist,’ ‘gay’ and ‘homo.’ Editorsfiled a report with the university’s police department, which listed thecase as criminal trespassing. 

Publisher David Kirby said he believed the paperwas targeted because of its conservative slant. Kirby said no one has been foundresponsible for the theft and vandalism. The Daily Tar Heel atUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had 10,000 copies taken in Novemberfrom news stands by fraternity members. The stolen issue featured an articleabout the fraternity’s hazing violations. Leaders of the fraternity, whohours after distribution admitted to the theft, said members were under theimpression that the newspaper was free and therefore could be taken. 

TheDaily Tar Heel agreed not to press criminal charges after the fraternityagreed to apologize and pay for the stolen issues. 

Jennifer Chancellor,adviser to the University of Tulsa’s Collegian, said college mediapublications are sometimes not taken “as seriously” as other outsidepublications.

“[College] newspapers have been around for decadesand are established institutions just like any other legitimatenewspaper,” Chancellor said. “I don’t think those students whobehave in that kind of manner really understand [that].” 

Thecorrect response

Goodman said that while university officials havetraditionally treated such incidents as pranks, prevention of newspaper theftdepends on how well administrators handle the cases that do occur.

“I think the biggest deterrent is how college officials respond ifa theft occurs,” Goodman said. “If they condemn the theft and pledgeto discipline anyone caught, I think that decreases the likelihood that a theftwill happen again”

Goodman also said that there seems to be ashift in how administrators are handling theft cases this year.

“Ithink there’s more of an understanding among officials why [newspapertheft is] not acceptable,” Goodman said.

In Indiana, three schoolsreported newspaper theft incidents within a two-week period in October.Newspaper staff members at Ball State University and Indiana State Universityreported that copies of their newspapers were stolen during homecoming week.About 7,000 copies of the Ball State Daily News and 600 copies of TheIndiana Statesman were missing. No one has been found responsible for thetheft at Ball State University. 

Two individuals at Indiana State Universityadmitted taking copies of the Statesman to paper mache a parade float,said adviser Merv Hendricks. Hendricks also said that in the two casesof newspaper theft that occurred at Indiana State University in the past fewyears, campus security has been quick in its investigation and administratorshave pursued the cases through the school’s internal disciplinary system.

But Hendricks noted the difficulty in pressing criminal charges againstnewspaper theft perpetrators, although there seems to be more awareness of theissue. 

He said county prosecutors usually do not put newspaper theft within thesame categories as other crimes. Staff members of University of SouthernIndiana’s student newspaper, The Shield, wanted to file a policereport after 2,300 copies were stolen this year, but the school’spublications board recommended that the incident be investigated by theuniversity. 

Shield adviser Patricia Ferrier said many on the staffwere unhappy with the decision, and that prosecution is important in lettingreaders know that student newspapers have as much credibility as theircommercial counterparts. The case is still open, but Ferrier said no one hasbeen found responsible for the theft.Ferrier said students in one of herclasses are currently looking into how to get a newspaper theft law passed inthe state of Indiana. 

California, Maryland and Colorado are the only states thathave laws making the theft of free newspapers a crime. But other states haveprosecuted newspaper thieves under general theft or destruction of propertystatutes.Once a theft does occur, Goodman suggested that staff membersimmediately file a police report. There are also additional steps students cantake to prevent newspaper theft, such as listing a monetary value somewhere onthe newspapers.After the first case of newspaper theft at Utah’sWeber State University four years ago, newspaper staff members added adisclaimer to the paper stating that while the first copy of The Signpostis free, additional papers are 50 cents each. 

In October, Signpost staffmembers reported the paper’s third theft case in the past four years. Thedisclaimer allowed staff members to put a value to the missing newspapers whenthey reported the incident to campus security. Editor in Chief Maria Villasenorsaid the case is still open but campus security is classifying it as “inactive.”

At Tulane University, The Hullabaloo tooka different approach in dealing with a newspaper theft incident. Tired of theuniversity’s lack of action when large numbers of newspaper copiesdisappear from racks, staff members billed a fraternity for taking about 400papers to use for a party. 

Editor in Chief Drew Dickson said there havebeen three theft incidents in the past two years at the university, butadministrators have been slow in their response. Instead of filing a report andhaving to go through a university disciplinary process, adviser Chantal Baillietsaid the Hullabaloo is treating the most recent theft as a simple “business transaction.”

Goodman said that newspaper staffmembers should speak to campus security and administrators before a thefthappens to determine what kind of response to expect if an incident occurs.Goodman said university administrators are beginning to have a greaterunderstanding of why newspaper theft is unacceptable.

“I do feelthere is more than just lip service when it comes to newspaper theft,” Goodman said. “There’s more objection to it than we’ve seen inpast years.”

Visit the Student Press Law Center’s Newspaper Theft Forum