Thieves try to silence bad news by stealing campus newspapers

By Melanie Bengtson
First Amendment Center Online intern

A rash of newspaper thefts at college campuses from Florida to Utah has forced students across the country to turn to the Internet — at least temporarily — to read their news. Since the beginning of October, 11 universities have reported the theft of their campus newspapers.

“In the minds of some, stealing newspapers seems to be like ripping music off the Internet. Both are theft, but those who do it seem to think that they are justified for some reason,” said Mead Loop, vice president of campus chapter affairs for the Society of Professional Journalists.

Most recently, members of the Sigma Chi fraternity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill admitted to stealing more than 10,000 copies of the Nov. 29 issue of the Daily Tar Heel. The headline story in that issue detailed the fraternity’s 3-year suspension for hazing violations. The staff posted on the newspaper's Web site a notice saying that 10,000 copies were missing and that they, along with campus police, would pursue larceny charges.

“This fraternity saying ‘we don’t want you to read it’ made people want to know what they didn’t want them to read,” said Daily Tar Heel Editor Joe Schwartz. “Really what they did was draw more attention to the story … I’ve talked to media outlets across the country" about the incident.

Through a third-party negotiator, fraternity leaders admitted that members of Sigma Chi had stolen the papers, apologized and said they would pay restitution to the newspaper to cover the ad revenue lost and reprinting of the newspaper.

Despite a lack of printed papers on campus that day, UNC students had another way to read the news. “The print edition is not all there is,” said Schwartz. “We have a faithful audience and when they can’t get the printed paper, they turn to the Web site.”

Many student newspapers offer online editions of each issue to ensure the dissemination of their message regardless of what happens to the printed versions. William Ruehlmann, executive director of the Society for Collegiate Journalists and professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, said, “We made sure that [newspaper theft] would be ineffective forever by establishing an online edition of the student newspaper, readily available on campus and off at our college Web site, with complete archives. Now the theft of newspapers, always reprehensible, has become an outdated enterprise, like holding up stage coaches.”

The University of Tulsa reported more than 700 copies of the Nov. 14 issue of The Collegian were stolen from newspaper distribution centers. Fliers with a picture from Facebook of the paper’s managing editor extending her middle finger were then placed in the papers, which were returned to their distribution racks. Thursday Bram, the managing editor, had recently published an investigative story about student government funding of student organizations.

More than 4,500 copies of the Nov. 13 issue of the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper of the University of Kentucky, disappeared the day of its publication. A story written by the editor in chief, Megan Boehnke, reported the results of toxicology reports showing that two UK students and a recent graduate had died while intoxicated. Family and friends of the deceased had urged Boehnke not to publish the article, which also stated that this was the fifth year in the last six in which a student had died while intoxicated. Because the stolen papers were valued at more than $300, the theft is considered a felony in Kentucky.

Several copies of The Dartmouth, Dartmouth College’s independent student newspaper, were burned in front of the publication office after the Nov. 3 issue contained an editorial cartoon about liberal academic revisionism, which depicted philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche advocating rape.

The Nov. 3 issue of Bryant University’s The Archway contained an article reporting that a student had been charged with driving under the influence after an off-campus car accident. About 900 copies of the newspaper were stolen from the Smithfield, R.I., campus.

Having generated an unusual amount of criticism already this year, the University of Southern Mississippi’s Student Printz had between 2,000 and 4,000 copies of its most recent issue stolen on Nov. 2. A sex column called “Pillow Talk” debuted in August, creating a stir among the students, faculty and alumni of USM. The Nov. 2 issue contained an article about a Playboy photo shoot that had taken place on campus and featured students. The university’s police chief said that no criminal theft charges could be filed because it is a free newspaper.

Student Printz reported on Nov. 21 that eight students had admitted responsibility for the theft. Those students are to pay restitution and perform community service to make up for the incident, which is to appear on their education records.

The Halloween edition of Phoenix's Arizona State University at West campus newspaper contained satirical photos of members of the student government. On Nov.1, roughly 1,800 of 3,000 printed copies of the West Express disappeared.

The Oct. 27 issue of Weber State University’s The Signpost contained an article revealing alleged sexual misconduct by a professor. Papers were missing from both on- and off-campus distribution centers near the school in Ogden, Utah.

Homecoming pranks at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and Indiana State University at Terre Haute resulted in the theft of thousands of campus newspapers. Roughly 7,000 copies of the Oct. 19 issue of Ball State’s The Daily News and 600 copies of Indiana State’s The Indiana Statesman from Oct. 16 were stolen.

The Shield of the University of Southern Indiana published a front page photograph of two women kissing in its Oct. 11 issue, as part of a story regarding the previous publication of the controversial picture in a campus magazine. Although 2,300 copies of the paper were stolen, the university’s Student Publications Committee voted not to file a police report about the theft.

Almost 700 copies of the campus newspaper at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., were stolen on Oct. 5. The Stetson Reporter contained a story about the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house, which was found to be infected with mold. A member of the sorority admitted to the theft; the sorority will pay the newspaper $1,200.

Three states have laws against the theft of free newspapers. Maryland passed such a law in 1994. In 2004, Colorado made stealing free newspapers a misdemeanor, punishable with fines up to $5,000. California’s new law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2007, and will punish offenders for taking more than 25 copies of a free newspaper. The penalty is $250 for the first offense and can reach $500 and jail time for repeat offenses.

Many colleges, including five mentioned above, charge students for additional copies of newspapers. At UNC Chapel Hill, the University of Kentucky and the University of Southern Illinois, the first copy is free and each additional copy costs 25 cents. The University of Southern Mississippi charges 25 cents for each copy after the first four copies, while Weber State University charges 50 cents for each copy after the first. Some of the policies were put into place after past newspaper thefts.

The SPJ's Loop says, "Student journalists need allies, including other journalists and journalism organizations, such as SPJ, which can decry the practice and educate the public, and administrators at schools who investigate and punish those responsible, and who loudly reiterate respect for a free campus press.”

Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.