Newspaper theft checklist

Before a Theft

  • Include a price tag. In lieu of a price, include language such as the following on your flag: “Single copies free.” In your masthead and rate card include additional information indicating that single copies are free to members of the school community. Also indicate that multiple copies may be available for purchase at an established price by contacting the newspaper’s business office. The following language is an example:

    “Because of high production costs, members of the State University community are permitted one copy per issue. Where available, additional copies may be purchased with prior approval for 50 cents each by contacting the Student Times business office. Newspaper theft is a crime. Those who violate the single copy rule may be subject to civil and criminal prosecution and/or subject to university discipline.”

    Of course, determining the actual price is up to you. It’s not necessary that you always collect the money. You remain free to give copies away when you feel it is appropriate.

  • Establish ties. Meet now with campus and law enforcement officials. Explain your concerns regarding newspaper theft and the danger it poses to your publication. Try to obtain their assurance that they will take newspaper theft incidents seriously. Be available to answer any questions they might have and to provide additional information.
  • Be alert. In some cases, thieves have actually warned a newspaper staff that they intend to confiscate the publication when it is distributed. Tell staff that they need to report such warnings to editors immediately. Carefully record the source, nature and time of the warning. If you learn of a theft in progress or have reason to believe that such action is imminent, notify law enforcement authorities. Then, position your staff at likely theft locations to take photographs of those involved. Safety dictates that staff not interfere with the thieves but simply record the criminal activity as it occurs.

After a Theft

  • Get a number. Attempt to determine how many copies of the paper were stolen.
  • Get a dollar figure. “Free” distribution newspapers are not free. In dealing with law enforcement officials and prosecutors, it can be very important to provide a reasonable estimate of the monetary harm your publication has suffered as a result of the theft. To come up with a price tag, the following costs should be determined: (1) printing costs, (2) delivery costs, (3) production costs (e.g., wire/photo service charges, graphic art fees, telephone and postage expenses, office supplies, photo supplies, etc.), (4) special printing/production fees associated with a “rush” job should you decide to reprint the paper, (5) salary for publication staff, (6) revenue that may need to be refunded to advertisers, etc. Do your best to be accurate and reasonable in your estimates, but also don’t hold back. For example, if an advertiser paid $2,000 to run an ad and only 50% of the newspapers were actually circulated, advertiser goodwill, if not the law, suggests that you may owe the advertiser a refund of $1,000. That is a legitimate, quantifiable loss and should be included in your tally. Prepare an itemized list to submit to law enforcement officials, news media and school officials.
  • Notify campus and/or local law enforcement agencies. File a formal police report and request a copy. Also notify the local prosecutor’s office as they will eventually be the agency responsible for determining whether a prosecutable crime has occurred. Be careful to note who you talk to and what is said. Inform officials that newspaper thieves around the country have been successfully prosecuted. If you determine the thieves are government officials (public college administrators, campus police, etc.), additional legal claims may also be available. For information about past prosecutions that you can share with “reluctant” law enforcement officials, contact the Student Press Law Center.
  • Launch an investigation. Unless your efforts would impede a police efforts, attempt to identify and interview witnesses to the theft. Send a campus e-mail or use other campus communication resources to ask for information that may lead to the thieves’ apprehension. In a few cases, professional journalism groups or interested alumni have offered modest rewards for valid “tips.” Carefully document all witness statements.
  • Notify school officials. Contact the college president and/or other high-ranking university officials in writing and request that they issue a strong public statement condemning the thefts that encourages law enforcement officials in their investigation, promises to appropriately discipline the thieves if caught and generally reaffirms the school’s commitment to free speech on campus. Their refusal or agreement to do so is news.
  • Set up a “Dumpster Patrol.” Search all university trash collection sites or other likely “dumping” locations. If copies are found, call for a photographer and the police to record the scene before removing them.
  • Alert local and state news media. Prepare a short press release for distribution. As with a news story, report only what you know and how you know it. Be careful about publishing unconfirmed reports about the identity or motivation of the thieves. Include information about how many copies were printed, the number of copies stolen, the cost to the publication, the response (or lack of response) of law enforcement and school officials. You may also want to include contact information for the Student Press Law Center to assist reporters who may want to obtain a national perspective of the serious problem of newspaper theft.
  • Inform your readers. Publish your own story — and perhaps an editorial– about the theft in the next issue of your publication.
  • Let us know. If you haven’t done so already, please report the theft to the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC is the nation’s leading authority on newspaper theft and the only group to consistently track such incidents. It is very important that we know about yours. Law enforcement and campus officials have sometimes refused to act, viewing a theft as an isolated “prank.” Help us remind them that there is nothing isolated or prankish about newspaper theft, that yours is part of a serious and threatening trend. Additionally, the SPLC can provide you with additional information and legal help in successfully prosecuting the theft of your publication.

Punishing Newspaper Thieves

  • Criminal prosecution. Possible charges include: larceny, petty theft, criminal mischief or destruction of property. Though not necessary to prosecute a theft, Maryland and Colorado have a specific state law making the taking of a free distribution newspaper a crime. Ultimately the decision to pursue criminal charges is up to the local prosecutor.
  • Campus disciplinary action. Even if there is insufficient evidence or grounds for criminal prosecution, newspaper thieves can be punished by campus officials for their misbehavior. While pursuing such punishment is also up to those issuing the discipline, student media can keep pressure on campus officials to take appropriate action and then follow up on the outcome.
  • Civil lawsuit for damages. This type of claim is solely in your hands and can be a way to recover financial losses suffered by the newspaper. Depending on the amount of loss (frequently a maximum of $2,500), student media may be able to pursue this claim on their own in small claims court for minimum cost and without the expense of an attorney. You will need to have carefully documented evidence of your losses. If small claims court is not an option, you will probably need to hire an attorney. The SPLC can discuss this option with you in more detail.
  • First Amendment claim. Newspaper theft is censorship. And if the perpertrator is a government official — which would include any public school administrator, employee or faculty member — he or she has likely violated the First Amendment and can be sued under applicable civil rights laws. That’s exactly what happened when former San Francisco police chief Richard Hongisto and two of his officers were successfully sued in 1994 for having seized approximately 2,000 copies of The Bay Times, a free weekly publication that had criticized Hongisto. Coming Up, Inc. v. San Francisco County, 92-CV-3714 (N.D. Calif. Sept. 16, 1994).