Mass theft of newspapers is a consistently reoccurringproblem college journalists around the country face. The motive behind eachinstance is different, but every year thousands of student newspapers areremoved from the stands, keeping them out of public hands.

In many cases, when student newspapers disappear from racksthey are taken in response to controversial content published within thatspecific issue. In March, a press run of The Campus, the studentnewspaper at Ottawa University in Kansas, went missing after the newspaper ranan issue focusing on sex. A photograph of sexually positioned naked dolls wasthought by Campus staff to have motivated the removal.More recently, copies of the Herald at Arkansas StateUniversity were allegedly stolen within two hours of hitting the stands the dayan article was published exposing a sorority email that condoned underagedrinking.

‘An opportunity to enlighten’

At the end of February, a small group of Texas A&M Corpsof Cadets members removed copies of The Battalion beforereturning them later that day. The act was in response to TheBattalion’s coverage of a Fighting Texas Aggie yell leader candidatewho received a ticket for an alcohol-related incident.

Editor Matt Woolbright said each year the student bodyelects yell leaders, who serve as the official school spirit leaders atathletic events and are a members of the Corps of Cadets. Woolbright’s articleran shortly before yell leader elections.

Although the Corps members were quoted saying the newspaperswere returned by 9 a.m., Woolbright said at 11 a.m. he did a sweep of campus,finding only about 30 to 40 newspapers on the main part of campus – out of thetotal press run of 18,000. By 3 p.m., Battalion staff checkedcampus again, finding 30 percent of the newspapers placed back in the racks byWoolbright’s estimation.

The Battalion compensatedadvertisers, whose ads went mostly unseen, by re-running all the ads for free,at a cost of $5,447.32 to the newspaper. Initially, the Battalionwas looking to pursue restitution from the Corps through the university justicesystem, but has since decided to drop a judicial remedy.

“We’re not pursuing any financial remedy from those who tookthe newspapers because they returned them pretty quickly,” said BattalionGeneral Manager Robert Wegener. “This was an opportunity to enlighten thecampus community that it is a theft.”

The Battalion responded to theincident by publishing an article calling the act a theft in addition to aneditorial by Woolbright titled “No Regrets,” defending the Battalion’sright to free speech amidst both student backlash and support.

The Corps of Cadets never apologized to the Battalion,something Wegener said he was never seeking, and it’s unknownwhether any disciplinary action was taken within the Corps. Corps of CadetsMedia Relations Coordinator Annette Walker said, at both the initial time ofthe incident and at a follow up, she knew nothing more than what the Battalionhad published about the incident.

Flying Squirrel reflects

While the most consistent motive behind taking studentnewspapers is to cover up a controversy, it isn’t always the case. The act ofstealing student newspapers has also been the focus of many college pranks, withno malicious intent other than humor.

In 2003, the SPLC reported a prank-gone-sour at theUniversity of Wisconsin at River Falls. A group of students calling themselvesthe “Army of the Flying Squirrel” took 2,000 out of 3,400 copies of the StudentVoice to fill a professor’s office. A “ransom” email was sent tothen-editor Jen Cullens demanding the Student Voice print on itsfront page a picture of a flying squirrel, a naked picture of actress BeaArthur and a football helmet full of cottage cheese—the latter two demands areference from the movie “Airheads.” The email, signed “Squirrel Master, a.k.a.‘Big Nut,’” also demanded the Voice print a “publicapology… for everything it has ever printed.” “Squirrel Master” threatened thatif the demands were not met, the Voice would be taken againthe following week.

Cullens received a tip early that morning by a Voicestaff member about the displaced newspapers and quickly mobilized fellowstaffers to redistribute the papers. Campus police were notified by newspaperstaffers – who also began their own investigation. Cullens said an ITdepartment employee traced the email to Ashton Flinders.

Looking back on the situation eight years later, Flinders –now pursuing his PhD in oceanography – said the “Flying Squirrels” were simplya group of friends having fun, with no malicious intentions.

“We weren’t the type of kids going out and drinking all thetime and partying and causing trouble,” Flinders said. “I mean, we were allchemistry and physics majors—we were just kind of blowing off steam in our ownway.”

Cullens recalled that she was in tough spot as editor of theVoice.

“We laughed at it because it was stupid and funny, but atthe same time working on a student newspaper is very time consuming and you’vegot a full course load,” she said, adding that she was also working a full-timejob. “I had no doubt that if we didn’t figure out who did it and if they didn’tget in trouble, that they would have tried to do the same thing the followingweek.”

The incident sparked a debate on campus over whether freestudent newspapers could be actually be “stolen.” Instead of pressing theftcharges, the Voice pressed charges under a misconduct policythat states the university is an “environment that is safe from violence andfree of harassment, fraud, theft, disruption and intimidation.”

The university judicial hearings resulted in a year ofnon-academic probation for Flinders and two other students involved. Flinderswas also required to do 10 hours of community service to the newspaper bydistributing the paper for two hours at a time on distribution days, whichCullens signed off on.

Flinders still has mixed feelings over the decision. He saiddelivering the newspapers wasn’t a big deal, but he felt “overtones of maliciousness”from the newspaper staff during the hearing process.

“A lot of the newspaper editorial staff kind of spun it intothis personal attack, not just on the student newspaper, but on thempersonally. I guess I was a little disappointed that they took it this way,”Flinders said. “We all had a professor that we liked to play jokes on, so itkind of spun off the idea of filling his office with student newspapers. Wedidn’t destroy any newspapers.”

Cullen said she was very impressed with the decision fromthe university judicial hearings.

“I thought this is really great that they’re taking usseriously. They were very professional,” she said. “I think a lot of peopledon’t know how to deal with newspaper theft. Our newspaper was free, so you runinto this problem of whether it’s really theft. We explained that our staff gotpaid, advertisers paid, students pay through student fees to get the newspapers– so it’s free, but it’s not like there’s no money that goes into it.”

Go to jail, pay a fine

Victims of theft may decide to keep the issue within thecampus community by seeking a decision through the university judicial system,like Cullen. But a newspaper staff’s options don’t stop there.

Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executivedirector of the First Amendment Center, said any state criminal law should besufficient for prosecution.

“I think these prosecutions should be brought under criminalstatutes as would any other theft,” Policinski said. “It’s a very FirstAmendment friendly approach because it’s not asking for any special treatmentfor a campus newspaper or any other newspaper. It simply says [if] you stealsomething that doesn’t belong to you, you commit a crime.”

Three states, Maryland, Colorado and California, have gonebeyond the generic theft statutes by passing specific newspaper theft laws. InMaryland, anyone successfully prosecuted under the newspaper theft statute canreceive a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail. In Colorado, a newspaper thiefcan receive up to $5,000 in fines if 500 or more newspapers were taken.Colorado’s law also explicitly refers to the student press. In California, afirst violation can result in a $250 fine. A subsequent violation can result ina $500 fine and 10 days in jail or up to 40 hours of community service.

Policinski said he has seen polar opposites as far asuniversity responses to newspaper theft. He’s seen a great many universitiesthat have adopted policies within student handbooks that specifically say theftis criminal conduct.

“But you still have a few campuses where the attitude isthat [newspaper theft] is a anything from a prank to a harmless activity,” hesaid.

A reoccurring stance taken by university police,administrators and suspects is that a free newspaper can’t be stolen. Althoughmost student newspapers are free, there is money associated with them. Studentactivities fees help support many student newspapers, every ad in a newspaperhas value to its advertisers and many student newspapers have paid staffersediting and writing the content that goes into each paper.

“I think Americans are just used to seeing price tags,” saidMike Hiestand, consulting attorney with the Student Press Law Center. “There’sthis conception that it’s just a freebie. It’s important that [newspapers] educatefolks that the only reason they’re putting them out for free is because they’reprepaid for and that’s the cheapest way to do it.”

Policinski said when a student newspaper is stolen it’s anact that dismisses the value of the student press.

“I think it’s not only saying that the product has novalue—that it’s a tangible product—they’re saying that the student newspaperitself has no value.”

Newspaper theft is also a very ineffective way of preventingcontent from reaching readers. Policinski said a combination of a growingaggressive attitude from publishers and editors, the web and national groupslike the SPLC and Society of Professional Journalists who support journalism,easily transforms what was a local story to a national story.

“Because student audiences come and go, I don’t thinkthere’s a realization that the theft actually heightens the attention to thestory,” Policinski said. “It might seem like common sense, but studentpopulations renew basically every four or five years and I think there has tobe this lesson learned over and over again that stealing editions of anewspaper will result in more publicity, not less.”

Student newspapers have taken their own proactive steps todissuade theft. One of these steps is printing a policy in each issue statingthat the first issue is free, but additional copies have an associated cost.

“Because we have the turnover in student population, it is alesson that probably needs to be taught every couple years, hopefully byinstruction not by prosecution,” Policinski said.

He recommends that universities include a policy orstatement in handbooks for incoming freshmen as a preventative measure againstnewspaper theft.

The SPLC receives about 20 reports of newspaper theft eachyear, though the exact number is almost certainly higher. The center reportedon seven thefts in the first three months of 2011 alone. And despite theincreased publicity, successful prosecutions and newspaper theft laws,newspaper theft isn’t going to vanish overnight.

“I think the realization is now that this goes on much morethan we might have thought,” Policinski said. “There’s a sense that it’sbecoming an increasing problem and more attention needs to be devoted towardsit, so it’s a bad time to steal editions if you’re a person contemplating it.”

By Kyle McDonald, SPLC staff writer