Hundreds of student newspapers vanish at Kansas community college, staff suspects theft, censorship

KANSAS — Students at Butler Community College’s Lantern distributed their biweekly newspaper on Jan. 31. The next morning, close to a third of the papers were missing. Entire racks were emptied.

“We sorta figured it was too good to be true that students were picking up that many newspapers,” Editor-in-Chief Victoria Lemon said. 

According to Lemon, her staff found 415 out of 1,400 newspapers missing from their racks. The Lantern, located in El Dorado, Kan., believes the papers were stolen, and that the perpetrator’s goal is to censor the newspaper.

The front page of the Jan. 31 print issue featured a story about DeMario Burnett, a Butler football player who was arrested and charged on Jan. 4 with capital murder after a drug related robbery in December 2017 in Anniston, Ala. The story was also reported by, a local Alabama news site.

The Lantern’s staff contacted Butler’s public safety office on Feb. 1. The next day, campus Chief of Police Jason Kenney said he spotted a student on surveillance camera ripping up newspapers and recycling them. Also, on Feb. 2, Lantern adviser Amy Chastain confronted a separate student in the hall throwing away papers. The individual told Chastain he was angry with the story about Burnett. 

Chastain and students of the Lantern filed an incident report on Feb. 2 with Butler’s public safety office.

On Feb. 5, Chief Kenney confirmed he had identified two individuals he believes are involved with the disappearance of the newspapers. A report by Kenney has been submitted to Vice President of Student Services Bill Rinkenbaugh. Rinkenbaugh will decide whether the individuals are in violation of student conduct policy and if the university will pursue punishment. The decision is expected by the end of the week.

While the newspaper is free on campus, those 415 papers are worth $700 when taking into account print and advertising costs. However, Chief Kenney doesn’t see it as a theft or deprivation of property issue. “I know it is a form of censorship, but criminally there is really not much to look at,” Kenney said. He cited that the Lantern does not have a policy about how many newspapers each student can take. 

Adviser Chastain disagrees. “This is censorship and theft,” she said. “The students put in a lot of time on these stories. They care about the work that they do.”

The front page story, written by staff member Matthew Will, is factually accurate Chastain says. “Everything is above board. I stand by the story.”

SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Frank LoMonte used an analogy to describe his position. “If I go into the Salvation Army soup kitchen, and instead of taking one bowl of soup, I grab the entire kettle of soup and pour it down the sewer drain, I’ve definitely stolen property,” said LoMonte. 

“It’s certainly illegal to destroy property for the purposes of preventing other people from using of it. Even if the property was not being offered for sale,” LoMonte said. 

LoMonte noted that universities don’t handle newspaper theft cases uniformly. Some ignore theft while others bring criminal charges against perpetrators. 

This is the first incident of newspaper theft reported to the SPLC in 2018. The SPLC provides tips on how to prevent and deal with newspaper theft and tracks newspaper thefts across the nation. 

SPLC staff writer Gabriel Greschler can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318. He is on Twitter @ggreschler.

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