Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced a newspaper theft this year, or if one ever occurs in the future, email Danielle Dieterich at firstname.lastname@example.org to report it.
At least 8,500 copies of student newspapers at colleges in the United States were reported stolen, trashed or destroyed in 2019.
In November alone, thefts were reported at County College of Morris in New Jersey, Frostburg State University in Maryland and the University of Tampa in Florida. These incidents brought the total number of reported incidents this year to 13.
The Student Press Law Center regularly tracks newspaper thefts as reminder that stealing newspapers — even if they’re free — is a crime.
According to SPLC guides, newspaper theft deprives the rightful owner of their property. In the case of free newspapers, the property is knowledge and the owner is the community. Stealing whole stacks of newspapers and throwing them in the trash is like going to a free soup kitchen and dumping out the soup before anyone could eat it.
Student newspapers are usually distributed for free, but they aren’t free to print. Selling advertisements helps offset printing costs for schools and newspapers — but if a newspaper theft occurs, and those ads don’t have the chance to be seen, businesses can demand their ads be ran again in a following issue to honor the agreement.
SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand says that stealing newspapers not only violates the First Amendment rights of student journalists, but also the public’s right to know.
“Newspaper theft is the ultimate form of censorship,” he said. “You don’t get much more effective than taking a newspaper so others can’t read it.”
2019 reported newspaper thefts:
- Feb 8: The Baylor Lariat; Baylor University (~50)
- Feb. 13: The Hilltop Views; St. Edward’s University (~2,000)
- Feb. 25: The Daily Gamecock; University of South Carolina (~500)
- Feb. 28: Hawks’ Herald; Roger Williams University (~100)
- April 9: The Rocky Mountain Collegian; Colorado State University (~1,000)
- May 9: The Spectrum; University of Buffalo (~400)
- May 15: Golden Gate Xpress; San Francisco State University (~2,100)
- Sept. 16: University Press; Florida Atlantic University (~900)
- Sept. 19: Tartan; Radford University (~1,000)
- Oct. 25: The Chimes; Capital University (~700)
- Nov. 14: The Minaret; University of Tampa (~100)
- Nov. 15: The Bottom Line News; Frostburg State University (Unknown)
- Nov. 20: Youngtown Edition; County College of Morris (~350)
So why did people steal newspapers in 2019?
In the Lariat’s case, a Baylor admissions staffer told student tour guides to swipe issues from two buildings where prospective students would be visiting. That issue’s cover story, titled “Fifth alleged rape reported,” detailed a fifth alleged rape in two months on Baylor’s campus.
University Press editors in Boca Raton, Florida also think their papers were trashed because of the cover story, which contained rape allegations against Florida Atlantic’s starting quarterback by a female student. In that same story, a Title IX lawyer said FAU most likely violated federal law while investigating the student’s accusation.
The Xpress at San Francisco State, which had the largest reported theft for the year, believed that a story covering an ongoing Title IX investigation into a professor was the reason so many papers were swiped. Xpress distribution staffers told the SPLC they were verbally confronted by students defending the accused professor.
Editors were also contacted by some of the professor’s colleagues after they caught wind the Xpress was going to publish a story on the allegations, saying they were going to “print lies” and that “you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Nobody was ever held responsible for these three thefts.
Sometimes, a thief is caught on surveillance footage. Unfortunately, that doesn’t amount to much if campus police won’t share the footage with the newspaper.
That’s what happened in Virginia to Radford University’s the Tartan.
The Tartan staff reported to the campus police that around 1,000 newspapers were stolen. Later, officers found surveillance footage of a person stealing papers from at least four newsstands.
Radford’s police chief told the paper that a “classified staff employee” was found responsible, and was disciplined internally, but they wouldn’t face criminal charges, since the newspapers were free.
The Tartan asked the university for the surveillance footage but was denied. Local newspaper the Roanoke Times reported that Radford did not retain surveillance footage from buildings where newspapers were stolen, and no one was found responsible.
“Universities and police often hold the misguided notion that stealing newspapers is not a crime because the papers are ‘free.’ That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Sommer Ingram Dean, staff attorney at the Student Press Law Center, about the Tartan’s theft. “Student newspapers are funded through advertisements and student activity fees.”
The Tartan paid $718 for a reprint of the issue.
“A government official throwing away newspapers because [they] didn’t want people to see the content is an egregious violation of the First Amendment,” Dean added.
But sometimes universities are more transparent. The Chimes at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio had more than 700 papers stolen from newsstands and reported the incident to campus police.
The issue’s cover story was about a Capital Police officer who was arrested in another county for allegedly driving drunk when he hit another vehicle. The Chimes Editor-in-Chief Heather Barr said she was hesitant to report the incident to campus police initially because of what looked like a conflict of interest.
But Capital’s police chief contacted Barr first after hearing about the theft on campus, and told her to file a report. He later caught the thief on surveillance footage.
He told Barr that it was another campus police officer who stole their papers, and that they were fired for it.
“[It’s] kind of a success story in a way,” Barr said. “It’s not like this for a lot of other student newspapers. A lot of times they don’t get answers.”
“I think it’s great what our university did,” she added, “but I also want that to be the case at every university where this happens, and I know that’s not how it is.”
The November thefts
Youngtown Edition’s Editor-in-Chief Alexa Wyszkowski told police that approximately 350 papers, worth $660 in printing cost, were found missing. A student was later identified and interviewed by campus police, but the school told Wyszkowski the student’s name and any related surveillance footage would be withheld as the student went through the college’s adjudication process.
The Minaret at the University of Tampa reported about 100 copies of its seventh issue of the year being stolen. The cover story for this issue detailed a strong-armed robbery on campus and students’ claims about the lack of transparency by university.
The Bottom Line News at Frostburg State in Maryland told the SPLC that some copies of a recent issue were stolen and others were thrown on the floor and stomped on.
Editors at The Minaret and The Bottom Line News could not be reached for more information about their thefts.
SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at email@example.com or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino
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