UPDATE: No criminal charges are being filed after 13 newsstands were emptied at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
On Feb. 26, 2020, members of VCU’s Student Government Association were seen trashing copies of The Commonwealth Times that included an article detailing ongoing conflicts within SGA. According to a statement by the VCU Police Department, detectives immediately began investigating and determined that the newspapers were improperly removed from distribution racks on campus.
However, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office for the City of Richmond declined to prosecute the case and will not move ahead with criminal charges. Managing Editor Andrew Ringle said the police department reached out to The CT about taking legal action and the staff said they did not want to proceed.
Ringle said his staff’s bigger concern was that the students who stole the papers understood the repercussions of their actions — holding them accountable with the police and in court was not the kind of resolution The CT staff was seeking. Insead, the staff wants the responsible students to be held accountable for their actions through the student conduct board.
“Overall, we weren’t surprised that the police decided to close their investigation; in fact it’s what we preferred,” Ringle said. “We didn’t want people to get into serious trouble with law enforcement, we didn’t want people to have this on their permanent record.”
The VCU Student Conduct Board is now investigating the case and will be determining the consequences for the students involved in the theft. Ringle said because COVID-19 caused VCU to move to online classes, he isn’t sure if the process will be delayed. Ringle remains hopeful that the Student Conduct Board will bring both financial restitution to The CT and a resolution to the issue.
The Student Conduct Board is composed of four University Community members with at least one student, one staff or instructional faculty member, and a non-voting chair, according to the university’s website.
Ringle still doesn’t know the total number of people involved in the newspaper theft or their names. The CT has not received an apology.
The CT covered the theft after it occurred. They published two news stories and, days after the incident, an editorial about the effect silencing the press through newspaper theft has on their community.
Headlined, “SGA members threw away more than our newspapers,” the editorial states in part: As journalists at the independent student newspaper, it is our responsibility to provide as much transparency as we can into the happenings and processes at our university. We fulfilled our journalistic duty by reporting on conflict within SGA and by making every effort to contact all leaders involved in order to get the complete story. Meanwhile, SGA members, serving as state actors as the governing body of a public university, violated the First Amendment to which they are bound by violating our freedom of the press.
3/4/2019 VCU student government members seen taking stacks of newspapers with a front page story on SGA’s “toxic” work environment
VIRGINIA — Hundreds of issues of The Commonwealth Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, were stolen from newsstands and trashed by individuals that students identified as student government members on Feb. 26. The issue contained a front page story detailing the “toxic” work environment in student government. Student Government Association’s official statement on the incident condemned the theft and did not deny the involvement of its members.
The CT staff stayed up until 4 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, to publish their weekly print edition. At 5:30 p.m. the same day, Hannah Eason, the news editor at The CT, received a direct message through The CT’s Instagram account from a student who claimed people were stealing papers from kiosks around campus.
She called her editor right away and, while on the phone, saw two people steal newspapers from the building she was just in. Eason said she told them to stop, but they didn’t listen and left with the stacks.
According to Managing Editor Andrew Ringle, students emptied 13 news stands located on VCU’s Monroe Park Campus, the main undergraduate campus. Ringle estimates around 875 newspaper issues were thrown away in trash cans and recycling bins all over campus. The CT‘s total circulation is 2,500 issues.
The CT notified university police, who have begun an investigation. Additionally, the university and student government have issued statements condemning the theft. SGA and administration did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s requests for comment in time for publication of this story.
“We always support free press, and are extremely disappointed by the two members within SGA … who blatantly attempted to censor free press and the Commonwealth Times,” read a statement from SGA senators, reported by The CT.
VCU’s code of conduct prohibits theft, and specifies involved students may face criminal charges or punishment from the university.
Theft is a really dangerous and powerful form of censorship
Ringle said total production cost for the issue was $1,847.68, which included the cost of printing and delivering the papers and the editors and designers on payroll.
The total advertised cost of the paper is $1 per issue, which means they lost about $875 through the theft. The policy, which exists for many student newspapers, states the first copy is free, then each additional copy costs $1 in order to prevent theft and quantify the loss in cases of newspaper theft. Ringle said advertisers who paid for space in the stolen issue haven’t asked The CT for a refund or reprint.
“It’s not just the money that concerned me, but just the hours of work that all of our staff put into making that paper, not just that one story on the front page that people seem to have issues with,” Ringle said. “We have three other sections in the paper … all of those editors and writers put hours of work into making those stories.”
The CT staff considered for about a week, but decided not to reprint the issue.
Right after he found out about the theft, Ringle reminded students on Twitter that The CT’s content is still available to read online. He said the incident has actually brought more attention to their SGA coverage.
The CT reported that witnesses identified three alleged perpetrators. Two of them were members of the SGA — the student body president, who was named in the front page article, and the student life chair.
The stolen issue had a front page story describing ongoing conflicts among members of SGA. In the articles SGA Vice President Alexia Guzman alleges that she faced a Title IX report filed by Student Body President Breanna Harmon that deemed her “unfit to lead.” It also included SGA Chief of Staff Taylor Maloney claiming she faced harassment by Senate Secretary Erica Ware and the SGA Senate Speaker saying that SGA procedures have not helped address ongoing leadership issues.
Ringle said The CT staff members were concerned about how student government members might react to the story, but did not anticipate a theft.
… all of those editors and writers put hours of work into making those stories
After news about the stolen newspapers broke, a group of SGA senators announced their plans to introduce articles of impeachment against the student body president.
SPLC staff attorney Sommer Ingram Dean said even though a student newspaper is available to the public for free, newspaper theft is still illegal. Factoring in the time, labor and costs to create it, student newspapers are not a free enterprise. Theft deprives the rightful owner of the property — in this case the owner is the campus community and the property is the paper.
Dean added that it is concerning this incident appears to be an attempt to suppress a story.
“Theft is a really dangerous and powerful form of censorship, it’s taking away the ability for readers to learn whatever it is that the student reporters are putting out there for them,” Dean said.
Student newspaper theft is not uncommon, even in the online and digital age A similar incident occurred at VCU in 2011 where 2,500 copies were stolen. SPLC is the only organization to consistently track student newspaper thefts in the U.S. In 2019, there were at least 13 student newspaper theft incidents with more than 8,000 issues stolen. Radford University’s student newspaper is still fighting its administration to release the name of the school employee found responsible for stealing papers, or at least release the surveillance footage through a public records request.
SPLC and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a joint letter to the VCU Student Body President that condemned the newspaper theft and cited concerns about the state of the free press at VCU. The letter says for SGA, which is legally a proxy of the commonwealth, to censor and remove newspaper copies was unconstitutional content-based censorship. The letter calls for SGA to take remedial actions and commit themselves to protecting free expression and press rights.
“It is incumbent upon SGA, as an entity, to publicly condemn these actions and recommit to respecting the freedom of the student press at VCU,” the letter reads. “SGA must also take steps to remedy the injustice caused not only to The Commonwealth Times, but also to its readers.”
Eason said this theft was heartbreaking because the issue was “awesome.” It included a black history month spread, high-quality sports photos, opinion columns and important coverage about a Board of Visitors meeting.
Ringle and Eason both said that despite the disappointing incident, they’ll continue reporting on SGA and the campus community.
Staff members at The CT tabled at prominent locations on campus and handed out the remaining issues of this edition on Thursday, Friday and Monday following the theft.
SPLC reporter Alicia Thomas can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-974-6318.
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