“How long are we going to wait?” Editor-in-Chief criticizes Radford’s newspaper theft investigation

The Tartan newsroom / Dylan Lepore

UPDATE: Dylan Lepore, editor-in-chief of The Tartan, wrote a letter to Radford University President Brian Hemphill on Student Press Freedom Day voicing his disapproval for how the university handled its investigation into the theft of 1,000 newspapers in fall 2019.

Lepore criticized Radford police’s decision not to charge the employee found responsible for stealing several racks of the student newspaper. He told the Student Press Law Center in a phone interview that he wants the university to disclose the thief’s name. In his letter, Lepore also asked Hemphill to conclude the nearly five month investigation and apologize to the Radford community.

“I’m trying to give Radford University a way out. And I’d like for them to take it because I want this to conclude,” Lepore told SPLC. “How long are we going to wait? Just work with me. I’m not asking for a lot, just for them to say and realize what happened and tell the Radford community that they’re sorry for what happened and that they stand by their student journalists.”

The university won’t release the video footage because they either didn’t keep it, or it was put in the employee’s sealed personnel file, according to The Roanoke Times.

“They are harboring a criminal in some ways, and we believe it is a crime to take newspapers that are paid for by someone else and take those copies away so others can’t read them,” SPLC’s Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said. “I think they’re trying to run around the law by moving this immediately from a police record, which is open to inspection, to a personnel record.”

Hemphill responded to Lepore’s letter by suggesting they meet and talk more over lunch. Lepore says they haven’t set a date yet.

Lepore plans to ask the state attorney general to get the personnel file and video footage released. Hiestand said if the attorney general sides with the university, The Tartan can file a civil claim, saying the employee took something that wasn’t theirs, and ask to subpoena that employee.

SPLC asked Radford University Police Department why the employee wasn’t charged and why they won’t release the footage from that night, but university representative Caitlyn Scaggs said the university has no comment.

11/12/2019 A Radford employee stole student newspapers, but the university won’t say who

UPDATE: An unnamed Radford University employee has been identified by university police as the person who stole campus newspapers from at least four newsstands in September.

In a letter to Tartan editor-in-chief Dylan Lepore, Radford University Police Chief David Underwood wrote that a “classified staff employee” was found responsible for stealing papers from four stands. Police did not say anything about the additional 14 newstands where issues were stolen; the Tartan reported about 1,000 papers were stolen in total.

Underwood wrote that the employee has been disciplined internally but will not be criminally charged, since the newspapers were free.

“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. “Student newspapers are funded through advertisements and student activity fees. Additionally, a theft has occurred anytime someone deprives the intended owner or recipient of a property from that property.”

“A government official throwing away newspapers because he didn’t want people to see the content is an egregious violation of the First Amendment,” Dean added.

The Tartan reprinted 800 copies of the Sept. 18 issue on Sept. 21 for a $718 price tag. 

“The Tartan had asked University Relations who the classified staff employee is, more specifically how they were disciplined, who their supervisor is, when the university became aware the perpetrator was a school employee, and when disciplinary action began,” reporter Camden Lazenby wrote on Nov. 8.

Chief of Staff and Vice President for University Relations Ashley Schumaker, in an email to the Tartan, wrote that “[n]o additional information will be provided regarding this matter as it is a personnel issue.”

The Roanoke Times uncovered multiple emails from Radford administrators  discussing the Sept. 18 issue through an open records request, including President Brian Hemphill and an email from the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences Interim Dean Matthew Smith blasting the Tartan’s editorial board for the paper’s cover.

“I just got a paper copy of the Tartan and am outraged by what I see on the front page. As someone who has worked with student papers, journalism, and media throughout my career, this is the singularly most insensitive editorial choice I’ve witnessed in 30 years,” Smith wrote, according to The Roanoke Times.

They expressed upset over a photo that accompanied a story on the unexpected death of Steve Tibbetts, the 49-year-old newly-hired chair of Radford’s criminal justice department. The photo, provided by Tibbetts’ widow, showed her husband and their daughter in front of a street sign bearing their last name. The street is marked as a dead end.

Lepore told the Washington Post that the paper will file records requests to access surveillance footage of the theft and uncover the name of the employee who took them.

9/25/2019 Rough week for Radford University student paper — 1,000 copies stolen, then prior review proposed

VIRGINIA —The day after approximately 1,000 newspapers were swiped from Radford University newsstands, administrators met with the head of the student newspaper and its advisers about the school possibly having pre-publication review of the Tartan.

Radford is a public university located southwest of Roanoke. The Tartan is printed weekly and 1,500 copies are distributed every Wednesday at 4:45 p.m. to 32 newsstands across campus. The cover story of this particular issue reported on the unexpected death of Steve Tibbetts, the 49-year-old newly-hired chair of Radford’s criminal justice department. He died of natural causes.

Also featured on the cover was the recent death of Radford freshman Aris Lobo-Perez, who was found unresponsive in a jail cell after being arrested the previous night for “swearing or intoxication in public.”

Dylan Lepore, editor-in-chief of the Tartan since December 2017, said newspaper theft has never happened at Radford while he’s been there. Leigh Anne Kelley, one of two faculty advisers for the Tartan, said she doesn’t recall an incident like this occurring in her 13 years at the university. 

A meeting with Radford administrators

The day after the Sept. 18 issue hit the stands, Lepore received an email from Vice President of Student Affairs Susan Trageser with a vague invitation for a discussion between the Tartan and administrators.

“I got an email from the Vice President of Student Affairs, just an email, no outline of what the discussion was about or anything,” he said. “So we scheduled to meet on Friday.”

After he got the email, he noticed the first empty stand.

“One stand or two stands is not that peculiar,” he said. “I went to the main food court and another stand was empty, and then I went from there to another stand that was empty, then I went across the hall and another stand was empty, and then I went across the street and those two stands were empty. That obviously got my attention.”

Lepore later sent a delivery worker to backtrack his route, eventually finding that 22 of the 32 stands were completely empty. The stands that still had copies were in locked buildings or the library, he said. About 67% of the 1,500 issues were gone.

I went across the hall and another stand was empty, and then I went across the street and those two stands were empty. That obviously got my attention.

Lepore and Kelley both said the Friday meeting between the Tartan and administrators centered around the latest print issue, including complaints about the cover photo used for the story about Tibbetts.

The photo features Tibbetts and his daughter, Rian, posing in front of a “Tibbetts St.” road sign, which  happens to be a dead end street. Administrators said people took issue with the photo having the phrase “Dead End.”

“What [administrators] told us is that they had multiple instances where they got complaints from what was written in the Tartan or what was on the front page of the Tartan,” Lepore said.

Lepore, however, said the Tartan itself received “zero” complaints through email, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram about the cover. Tibbetts’ wife provided the family photos to the Tartan.

Kelley said she asked Trageser if she directed those calls to the Tartan and that it struck her as odd that callers didn’t reach out to the paper first.

“I asked her if she had forwarded those calls to the student newspaper and explained to [the callers] that we have an independent student press here,” Kelley said, “and she said she did not.”

“I thought it was unusual to have a concern about a photo that you don’t immediately call student media and let them know. It seems like that would be a natural first step,” she added. “I found it unusual that the issue was addressed in a meeting that involved eight people at the university — six administrators who are at a relatively high level in the administration.” 

Administrators then brought up coverage  of a Radford student who was charged with murdering her roommate in January 2019. The victim was stabbed up to 40 times. Lepore conceded the Tartan did receive complaints after he wrote an article on it, but defended his reporting.

“I wrote the story about it and I got a lot of emails back from that,” Lepore said. “Some of the people, of course, didn’t like the way the story was written; however it was factual in its entirety.”

“What was peculiar about this issue,” Lepore said, “is that the administration said they got a bunch of complaints from other people, other sources, but they didn’t really tell us who sent them.”

Lepore said administrators then asked “how can Radford University help the Tartan?” Since the newspaper is funded by student fees, Lepore said administrators felt they should offer guidance as they would any other student group.

I found it unusual that the issue was addressed in a meeting that involved eight people at the university — six administrators who are at a relatively high level in the administration.

Administrators offered to sit in on their weekly 5 p.m. Friday meetings, which Tartan advisers immediately rebuked. They said this would fall under prior review of an independent news source. 

“[Administrators] suggested that they could provide oversight before the newspaper goes out,” Kelley, recalled saying. Both Kelley and co-adviser Geoff White were present at the meeting. “Even that I could review it and give it my okay before it goes out, or another adviser. I don’t review the student newspaper before it goes out. It’s the student newspaper.”

Radford’s Office of University Relations declined to be interviewed, but forwarded to the Student Press Law Center an email originally sent to the Tartan providing statements about the meeting and the theft itself.

Vice President of University Relations Ashley Schumaker wrote in the email that “[t]he University is not establishing a prior review of The Tartan or any other form of student media. There have been two meetings in recent weeks during which University officials have offered their continued support and increased engagement with The Tartan.”

“Those meetings have been structured to determine ways in which the University can strengthen its partnership with the student newspaper, including the offer to establish regular meetings to share University updates and pitch story ideas,” she added.

[Administrators] suggested that they could provide oversight before the newspaper goes out.

Kelley said the situation should serve as a learning moment about press freedom for both students and faculty.

“The students who study communicating here are really required to understand and apply the principles of law of the freedom of speech and press. We just need to make sure we communicate what those are about pre-publication review and why that doesn’t make sense,” she said. “All of the university community really needs to understand how that works.

Investigation into theft

In an email to the SPLC, Lepore said when he spoke to University Police last week, an officer told him that since the papers were free, the matter was not going to be investigated.

According to SPLC guides, the theft of newspapers is legally a crime, even if they’re available to students for free, because it deprives the rightful owner of their property. In the case of free newspapers, the property is knowledge and the owner is the community. The analogy would be going to a free soup kitchen and dumping out the soup before anyone could eat it.

University Police declined to comment, deferring instead to University Relations. In the email from Shumaker, she wrote that “[t]he University does not have any information about the removal of the newspapers.”

Lepore said he sent a FOIA request to Radford University Police for any surveillance camera footage that captured any of the thefts. University Police has five days to respond to the request, according to Virginia law.

SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at jseverino@splc.org or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino

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