(Story updated at 7 pm, 9/24, to include what a school administrator said is the basis for the exemption of the security footage.)
FLORIDA — When Kelli Krebs, editor-in-chief of the Eagle News at Florida Gulf Coast University, left class on Tuesday, she noticed that a newspaper distribution box was completely empty.
That’s odd, she thought, there was not a particularly big story in that week’s paper. She kept walking and noticed another distribution box was also completely empty — even the paper in the display stand was gone.
“I was like, ‘Oh no,’” she said. This had happened before. Last year, all 3,000 copies of the Eagle News’ print run were stolen in the middle of the night.
This time, the editors counted that 12 racks were completely emptied. They estimate that between 720 and 1,440 copies of the paper were stolen, a value of between $180 to $360.
“We are distraught,” Krebs wrote in an editorial about the theft. “Our rights have been violated. We have had something stolen from us. We will not act lightly. By taking copies of Eagle News from our stands for purposes other than reading those issues, you are depriving student journalists and advertisers from delivering a message, and you are depriving the rest of the student body from receiving that message.”
Krebs said the editors have contacted the university police, but they have not filed a police report. She said they were told that since doing so would start an open investigation, they would not be able to obtain the surveillance video of the incident.
Police told the editors they have video of one person — dressed in a black shirt, black pants and carrying a light-colored backpack — taking all of the issues in a distribution rack. The editors were given no further information.
Krebs said the editors want to watch the video to see if they recognize the person taking the newspapers. If they don’t recognize the individual, they will post the video along with a story to see if they can get any leads, she said.
“Our goal is to identify and charge the person responsible,” she said.
A university police officer has since contacted the Eagle News’ managing editor Nina Barbero and said the security footage is not a public record and the editors will not be able to see it, regardless of whether if a report is filed.
At most, the police officer told Barbero that if a report is filed, the investigating officers might send the editors a still frame photo of the individual in the video for identification purposes.
The editors are submitting a public records request to the police department. Florida Gulf Coast University is a public school, but Susan Evans, vice president and chief of staff at FGCU said in an email that the basis for the disclosure exemption is a 2015-16 state Attorney General opinion that says video tapes from surveillance cameras are confidential and exempt from public inspection because they could reveal the details of the security system.
Krebs said she isn’t sure why the newspapers were stolen. Her only theory is that this could have something to do with a story they published the week before about the men’s lacrosse team facing suspension for its $16,000 in debt. That’s the only controversial story the paper has published recently, she said.
After the story was published, she said, the captain of the lacrosse team came up to her and said he didn’t appreciate the story because “it makes us look bad.”
Last week, the team had an appeal hearing, where it was decided that the team will not have a post-season. Krebs said she knows they were “really upset about it,” but emphasized that she is not sure who is responsible for the newspaper thefts.
“I’m frustrated,” she said. “I wish people understood that journalism isn’t supposed to be PR.”
Last time the Eagle News was stolen, Krebs said the university police said they had no surveillance video because the department was rebooting its cameras. She said the editors pursued the issue with the police for a month and a half “and got nowhere.”
“Last time we were given no help and couldn’t do anything,” she said. “Whoever was responsible last time got away with it and we do not want to send a message that this is something that we will tolerate.”
In her editorial, she wrote that in addition to censoring the content, the person responsible is “stealing the hard work of student journalists.”
“We are student journalists preparing for careers while covering the good, the bad and the ugly at FGCU,” she wrote. “Our purpose is to encourage conversations about issues that concern the on-campus community. We do our best to represent the diverse voices on campus with fairness.”
This is the fourth newspaper theft reported in 2015. The Student Press Law Center maintains a database of thefts across the country.
“We will continue to seek out the truth. We will continue to report all the news on campus, even if it isn’t the prettiest,” Krebs wrote. “We are Eagle News, and we will not be censored.”
Contact SPLC staff writer Madeline Will at 202-833-4614 or by email.