Admissions staffers weren’t happy with the front page story run by the University of Massachusetts-Boston’s student newspaper, the Mass Media, during a welcome day earlier this month.
The newspaper had reported about a hazmat scare in the dorms that led to a resident being taken to the hospital on a stretcher. Admissions staff, concerned about the university’s image, asked editor Kelsey Hale if the paper could hold off on filling stands.
“And I was like, ‘No you can’t. This is our right to put them up,” Hale said.
Undeterred, admissions staffers put a coat over a prominent stand. When Hale found out and removed it, they flipped the newspapers over.
About 200 copies were missing earlier in the day from stands that are rarely if ever completely emptied, Hale said, but the Mass Media hasn’t been able to prove who took them.
Hale was able to review some security camera footage and confirm that admissions staffers did in fact obscure the newspapers. The tapes Hale requested didn’t record the earlier possible theft, but Hale said she’s content to let it go.
She published a letter from the editor on April 8 detailing the incident and calling out admissions staffers and the university as a whole for First Amendment violations.
After weighing options, Hale decided not to file a police report and instead met with the university chancellor and admissions staff, with mixed results. The meeting with the chancellor was “not very productive,” Hale said.
“I think the university as a whole does not understand the scope of how illegal and how against the rules this was,” she said earlier this month.
More headway was made with admissions staff, Hale said. After talking with the head of admissions, they decided to set up a mandatory training on the rights of the newspaper for staff members, and the Mass Media will do a training every year on media and First Amendment rights.
The training, which took place on April 18, was productive, Hale said. There were about 20 attendees, and one of the admissions staffers who tampered with copies of the Mass Media apologized, Hale said.
She published a follow-up letter from the editor Wednesday, describing the steps the newspaper and the admissions department took. The staffers who flipped and obscured papers were acting alone and without direction from their bosses, Hale wrote.
“We are thankful that the admissions staff was compliant with our requests and respecting the First Amendment rights we have as a newspaper of a public university,” Hale wrote.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for UMass-Boston said via a statement that the incident was “regrettable.”
“The Office of Undergraduate Admissions believes the incident that took place during the Welcome Day program was regrettable and not a reflection of the beliefs of the office as a whole or the university administration,” read the statement provided by DeWayne Lehman, director of communications.
“This venue for open dialogue was extremely helpful for all parties to express and understand the seriousness of the actions taken,” the statement read.
The Student Press Law Center tracks student newspapers thefts across the country and provides resources for student media outlets.
So far in 2019, the SPLC has covered newspaper thefts at Colorado State University, Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, St. Edward’s and Baylor universities in Texas and at the University of South Carolina.
Mike Heistand, SPLC’s Senior Legal Counsel, said student newspapers may be distributed for free, but of course they aren’t free. Theft of a free student newspaper is still theft.
“It’s not much different from someone taking your pre-paid copy of Sports Illustrated that was put into your mailbox for ‘free’ by your postal carrier,” Heistand said.
SPLC reporter Cory Dawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @Dawson_and_Co.
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