Engineering students steal more than 1,500 copies of student newspaper for class project

FLORIDA — After sports editor Ryan Lynch spent his entire summer reporting for a special football edition of the University Press, about 2,500 copies were finally dropped into bins across Florida Atlantic University’s campus last Tuesday.

By Wednesday evening, most of the copies were gone. The value of the stolen papers was estimated at about $950.

The 24-page issue held 12 pages of sports content, most of which Lynch reported himself. The issue was his first big project as an editor, which came after months of planning with other writers and the design team.

“Our special football edition has always been a huge issue for us and usually football is one of the more popular sports out there, so it gets picked up,” Lynch said.

Realizing more than 1,500 copies of their paper had disappeared from their containers, the staff began to suspect it was more than a case of an in-demand edition.

“I thought, oh my God, some of our bins are really empty, this must be a popular issue,” editor in chief Emily Bloch said. “But it was weird they were completely empty so fast.”

One news editor remembered a student dropping by the paper’s offices to request extra copies of the paper for an engineering project, and turning him away. This led Bloch to Professor Tsung-Chow Su, who teaches a freshman Fundamentals of Engineering class and recently assigned a project that required students to create a bridge that could withstand large amounts of weight — built entirely from newspaper.

The project is a staple across all the fundamentals classes, which is taught by several other professors in the department. Su’s class was the first to assign the project this semester.

Su said that he has been teaching the course for about 15 years, and remembered when students stole 2,600 copies of the student paper for the same project in 2012.

To address this, Su said he gives an ethics speech to the class about how to acquire materials, specifically advising against the use of the University Press.

“We started to tell students that it’s ethical issue — that it’s free, but not really free,” Su said.

The class has nearly 100 students in it, who were arranged into groups of two to four members for the project. Both Su and Bloch were unsure the exact number of groups who used the University Press papers, as some were used inside the structures and covered by other publications.

One group, whose entire project used the University Press, broke theirs down after to try and salvage the issues and counted 100 copies.

Su sent an email reprimanding his students following the assignment, but said students who used copies of the University Press for their projects will receive no grade penalty.

“Character is important in engineering. I hope you all take this lesson dearly. I hope that one day you all will uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the engineering profession and worthy of public trust,” Su’s email said.

Unsatisfied with the response, Bloch and her adviser reported the incident to university police, who took photos of the bridges and advised setting up a meeting with the engineering school’s dean’s office.

A few days later, Bloch said the meeting exceeded her expectations: the associate dean apologized on Thursday, declared a new policy where the department will provide paper for future projects and helped her submit a reimbursement request.

Bloch is waiting to hear if her $948, the estimated cost of the papers stolen, will be approved. She said the money will go toward a future issue, as the football special edition content has been pushed online to compensate for the missing paper editions.

Bloch said no further police action will be taken since she deemed the meeting a success.

In years past, several newspaper thefts have plagued Florida Atlantic University. In 2010, there were 2,000 copies trashed in response to a faculty resignation cover story, and 900 were stolen by fraternity pledges.

This is the second incident of college newspaper theft reported in 2015. The Student Press Law Center tracks newspaper thefts and provides resources on what to do if it happens on your campus.

Contact SPLC staff writer Allison Kowalski by email or at 202-478-1926.