As the academic year wound down, college news organizations in San Francisco and Buffalo, N.Y. reported their papers were trashed in an effort to conceal controversial stories.
An estimated 2,100 copies of the Golden Gate XPress, San Francisco State University’s student newspaper were stolen on May 15.
And at the University at Buffalo in New York state, members of the Sigma Chi Omega fraternity were identified as disposing copies of The Spectrum.
Julie Parker, the XPress campus news editor, said approximately 300 copies of the paper were found in a trash can in the humanities building, but was unable to locate the rest of the 1,800 or so stolen copies.
“Within an hour [of distributing papers], people were starting to see empty stands,” said Parker. Editors quickly realized something was wrong.
“We put together a good paper… but papers don’t fly off the newsstands that quickly,” she said.
The paper had published a story written by Parker and another student, Geoffrey Scott, about an ongoing Title IX investigation into allegations that a professor in the Africana studies department had repeatedly harassed a student. The professor was under consideration to become department chair of the department, and a student shared her story prior to the selection because she felt the department was not responding adequately to her concerns.
“We don’t know who took [the papers] yet, but we are assuming it was students that were backing [him],” said Scott.
A couple of newspaper staffers reported being verbally confronted by students while distributing papers.
“A girl came from behind me and she said, ‘You guys literally just published a piece that can ruin a man’s life — [and] for what?’” said XPress staffer Camila Ramirez-Diaz in a news article the XPress ran in response to the theft. “I didn’t respond to her at all, I totally ignored her and put the old [newspapers] back in my cart.”
Parker said that it was frustrating to receive so much backlash because she and Scott interviewed both the accused professor and the student. The student had initially reached out to XPress editors about writing an Op-Ed detailing the alleged harassment, but editors decided that interviewing both the student and the professor for a news article instead would be a more balanced approach.
Scott faced pushback throughout the entire process of reporting the story. An Africana studies student himself, he got negative feedback from students and professors before the story was published. Some suggested that the student who made the allegations was being coached by professors who had different ideological views from the accused professor.
“I got hit up by a lot of professors telling me ‘you’re going to print lies, this is sensational journalism,’” said Scott. “I got emails telling me ‘you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know the backstory,’ but I spent weeks looking into the backstory.”
After the story was published, Scott received even more backlash from professors in the Africana studies department for writing the story, including professors he was taking classes from. He feared for his grades.
“They said I needed to be held accountable,” said Scott. “I was kind of scared.”
Parker said that this is not the first time that the Golden Gate XPress has been stolen off racks. In 1997, an estimated 6,000 papers were stolen following the publication of a controversial article that reportedly caused tensions between the newspaper staff and the Pan Afrikan Student Union.
Fraternity members trash papers at the University at Buffalo.
Across the country in Buffalo, Editor-in-Chief Brenton Blanchet had been up until 5 a.m. working on the May 9 issue of The Spectrum, which contained an article about how Sigma Chi Omega members held a banquet in violation of the University’s ban on Greek life activities for the remainder of the semester.
The ban was issued by the university following the April 17 death of an 18-year-old student that may have been connected to fraternity hazing.
Another editor to found roughly 400 copies thrown in trash cans.
It’s just upsetting to see students thinking they can censor us because of something that’s in print.Brenton Blanchet, Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum
“Our editorial editor was walking through our student union and noticed that the stack [of papers] was surprisingly low,” said Blanchet.
That editor looked through the garbage cans and found hundreds of discarded copies of the paper. He pulled them out of the trash and replaced them in the newsstand, but it soon became clear that this was not an isolated incident.
“It was very discouraging. Later that day I walked through and I noticed a stack completely thrown out, maybe like 200 papers,” said Blanchet. “I pulled them out of the trash and I tweeted a video of it and it got a little bit of traction,” said Blanchet.
“A lot of reporters and student journalists supported us and backed us up,” said Blanchet. “It’s good to see writers of all kinds appreciating the press and it was also good to see how quickly our school actually acted on it.”
The Spectrum reported that members of the fraternity registered their banquet at a local venue under the name “UB architecture formal” to avoid being identified as a fraternity and facing punishment from the university.
Blanchet said he did not expect the story to be such big news, describing the story as a “brief blurb below the fold.”
“It ended up being someone who was clearly upset with having their name on the paper. They noticed it pretty quickly,” said Blanchet. “It’s just upsetting to see students thinking they can censor us because of something that’s in print.”
Blanchet noted that The Spectrum experienced a similar theft in 2018, when papers were discarded in what is believed to have been a miscommunication among facilities staff during end of semester cleaning.
SPLC tracks newspaper thefts
Even in the digital age, newspaper theft on college campuses continues. The Student Press Law Center is the only organization in the U.S. that tracks student newspapers thefts. The SPLC also provides resources for student media outlets. In 2018, the center learned of eight incidents of stolen student newspapers, marking a then four-year high point.
That number has already been surpassed in 2019. Thefts have been reported so far at St. Edward’s University, Colorado State University, Baylor University, Roger Williams University and the University of South Carolina. Incidents are generally a result of the publication of controversial articles.
It is important to note that these figures are anecdotal, based on when a student news organization reports it to the SPLC.
In San Francisco, Parker said that after a long discussion, she and the other XPress editors decided to file a report with campus police.
“It’s complete censorship in the fact that some students didn’t want anyone to hear about this story,” said Scott.
Blanchet and the other editors at The Spectrum contacted the Buffalo campus police department, which worked quickly to identify the students who stole the papers. Blanchet said that the police were able to identify the students, who are now under judicial review for the theft.
“At the end of the day, this just shows that we’re doing our jobs. Not everyone’s going to be completely satisfied with the coverage that we have, but as long as we’re reporting on what happened and we’re reporting on the facts, people are at some point going to be upset with it, but to know that our impact is big enough that somebody wants to try to suppress us by throwing out papers is enough,” said Blanchet.
SPLC reporter Ginny Bixby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @Ginny_Bixby. Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free occasional News Roundup.