Auburn U. student government members admit to stealing newspapers to censor editorial

ALABAMA — Two members of Auburn University’s Student Government Association have admitted to stealing more than 1,000 copies of the student newspaper’s Aug. 28 issue in an attempt to censor an editorial criticizing changes to a campus shuttle bus service.

The students — Colson Smith, SGA’s executive vice president of programs, and Kohl Weir, an SGA senator — have agreed to pay $830 of the $1,660 The Auburn Plainsman lost in printing costs and advertising revenue, Editor-in-Chief Becky Hardy said. The student editors are also calling for Smith and Weir to resign from their positions in student government.

Additionally, both Smith and Weir wrote letters to The Plainsman apologizing for the thefts, which were published both in print and online.

In his letter, Smith said he was “disappointed in an article that minimized the work of one of my good friends seemingly without regard to the months of thought and effort he had invested on behalf of Auburn students,” referring to the editorial about the bus service changes.

Weir said in his letter that he stole the papers because he took the story personally.

“The resulting behavior on that morning was impulsive, inappropriate, and immature,” he said. “As I place myself in your shoes, I am fully aware of how tacky and disrespectful I must seem through this situation.”

Smith and Weir did not respond to emails requesting comment. SGA President Logan Powell declined to comment.

Hardy said that because the university allows the accusers to propose sanctions against accused students, she discussed ideas for a punishment with The Plainsman’s managing editor, advertising manager and adviser. They shared the suggestions with Director of Student Involvement, Corey Edwards, who was not available for in interview. Edwards gave the editors’ proposed sanctions to the Office of Student Conduct.

Instead of challenging the sanctions in a disciplinary hearing, Smith and Weir agreed to the sanctions on Oct. 15, Hardy said.

“We wanted a little harsher punishment,” Hardy said, “but we decided that this was the best way to not ruin their lives as well as teach them a lesson.”

The Plainsman reported the theft to the Auburn Police Division on Aug. 28 after staff noticed empty newspaper stands at the student center, dining hall and three academic buildings that morning. Production costs and lost ad revenue was a $1,660 loss for the newspaper, Hardy said.

Hardy questioned a delay in the investigation in an editorial published Thursday, writing that police viewed the security tapes on Sept. 17, and the Office of Student Conduct started their investigation Sept. 30. Associate Director of Public Safety Randal Cerovsky said his office assists the city police department and didn’t review security video until the Auburn Police Division sent a request to screen the tapes.

Hardy said she gave city police the names of suspects, provided by an anonymous tip provided, so The Plainsman wouldn’t be shut out of updates. City police and Public Safety denied the newspaper’s requests for video and stills because they are investigatory records, Hardy said.

Hardy said the city’s attorney did not deem the theft a crime because stealing free newspapers isn’t a crime under Alabama law. The Plainsman added a statement in the paper to say that the first copy is free and each additional paper costs 50 cents.

In the editorial, Hardy said the staff was more concerned about the censorship than the monetary loss from the theft.

“Hopefully people understand,” Hardy said, “that this isn’t something that you can just do whenever you don’t like something that’s written in The Plainsman.”

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.