Disappearing Acts: Student newspapers struggle against theft, 'recycling'





This spring, four more university newspaper staffs became the victims of an increasingly popular form of censorship on college campuses: newspaper theft. These four incidents bring the total number of thefts reported to the Student Press Law Center for the 1995-96 school year to 26.

Two of the four thefts were race-related, a growing trend in newspaper theft. At both of the schools, members of minority groups on campus claimed responsibility for the thefts and demanded better coverage of minority issues.

One such school was Louisiana State University, where two articles about the Ku Klux Klan in the student newspaper sparked a two-day “recycling campaign” by two African American students.

In late April, the Daily Reveille, a free paper, ran a two-part story about the KKK after a paper staffer was invited to attend a rally by the group.

The two thieves resented the article and “recycled” about half of the paper’s 17,000 copies. They claimed the article glorified the Klan and detracted from its violent past.

Paper staffers deny these allegations, saying, if anything, the articles made the Klan look narrow-minded and hateful. On the day the articles ran, editor in chief Trace Purvis wrote an editorial distancing the paper from the Klan’s ideologies.

“Don’t mistake today’s two-page layout about the Ku Klux Klan as an endorsement of that organization. The Reveille by no means believes in racial ideologies espoused by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan,” he wrote.

The “recycling” incident was the most recent in a series of problems the paper staff has had with the two students, who say the paper and its staff are not diverse enough.

The students responsible for the thefts were not punished, a fact that has frustrated paper staffers. Jim Purgerson, advertising manager of the paper, said the light-handed approach to the thefts taken by the administration, “set a precedent for newspaper thefts to go unpunished.”

Purvis eventually decided not to pursue criminal prosecution of the case. Instead, the staff is focusing on keeping thefts from happening again. Purgerson and media adviser Howard Arceneaux are working with the Dean of Students office to make stealing free papers a violation of the student code of conduct.

At the University of Kentucky, the site of the second racially motivated theft, a sign reading, “No Diversity. No Equality. No Justice. No Kernel.,” was the only trace left by thieves who took 11,000 copies of the student newspaper in late April.

Michael Agin, general manager of the Kentucky Kernel, said the sign also provided the theft’s only motive. “I’m not sure what the sign means entirely,” he said, adding that it would be up to the culprits to reveal the reason for the theft.

The 11,000 papers, 65 percent of the paper’s 17,000-copy daily run, were taken from points around campus.

Agin said four people called the newspaper and identified themselves as the paper thieves. Three other suspects were apprehended after witnesses called the police and told them they saw people stealing the papers.

The theft received prominent coverage in the local media, Agin said, and was the lead story on all three of the local television station’s newscasts. He said the media coverage yielded support from students on campus, who expressed opposition to the theft.

The newspaper staff has pursued the case using two parallel paths, Agin said. The first, he said, was through the university’s student code of conduct.

“I’ve been pretty pleased with the university’s response,” Agin said. “They haven’t swept it under the rug.”

Agin said he does not know what sanctions the suspects were given by the university’s disciplinary system. Like most other colleges and universities around the country, the University of Kentucky conducts student disciplinary hearings in private and does not make the results of hearings open to the public. He said the office of student affairs would only tell him that the individuals involved had been “dealt with.”

The newspaper’s advertising manager also filed a criminal complaint with the county attorney in late July, Agin said. He said the county attorney probably issued criminal summons in early August.

Agin said he plans to rally the support of journalism organizations in the state to lobby together for legislation making the theft of free papers a crime.

The paper is currently pursuing prosecution of the theft as a misdemeanor.

Agin estimated the cost of the stolen papers to be approximately $5,000, including loss of advertising, the impact of the advertising, attorney’s fees and staff time. Students at at least one school, St. Cloud State University, took a light-hearted approach to their newspaper’s theft.

After 5,000 of 7,000 copies of the free bi-weekly paper, The Chronicle, were stolen in early May, allegedly by fraternity or sorority members, students staged newspaper relay races and wrote editorials of support to the paper.

David Tjornhom, advertising manager of the Chronicle, said the theft was “a joke on campus for a long time.”

Michael Vadnie, adviser for the Chronicle, said the item that precipitated the theft was likely a negative letter to the editor about a sorority on campus. He said the incident was perplexing because the paper has run more controversial things than the letter without incident.

Some of the stolen papers were found in a fraternity house dumpster and at least one member of the fraternity was punished through the university judicial system.

Vadnie said the administration took the thefts seriously. He said their approach to the situation was that although the paper is free, it has value and belongs to the entire university community.

“I don’t think we ever got mad, we got even,” Vadnie said.

Vadnie was out of town when the theft occurred and found out about it when the editor of the local paper called him to offer support. He also received support from the company that publishes the student paper, who offered to reprint issues of the stolen paper for a discounted price.

North Carolina State University’s The Technician experienced a new twist on theft when the entire press run of the paper was altered before it went to press.

Newspaper adviser Stan North Martin said someone took the paste-ups of the April 26 edition of the Technician, and replaced two editorials with a scathing column about the paper’s former editor in chief.

Jean Lorscheider, who was the target of the column’s attack, recently took over as the opinions editor, so that she was insulted on the page she now edits. All 18,000 copies of the day’s papers were distributed before anyone on staff found out about the switch.

Martin said he thinks the suspects made the change as the paste-ups sat waiting to be picked up by the printer. He said the theft was undoubtedly an inside job, and two former newspaper staffers are currently under investigation by the office of public safety. Unfortunately, both of the suspects have left school, making it harder to prosecute them through the student judicial system, he said.

Martin said another obstacle has been the mixed reaction about discipline he has received from the administration. The theft is not a high priority for the school’s investigator, he said.

Meanwhile, the paper staff’s main concern is to prevent this kind of theft from happening again. The staff is considering locking the paste-ups in a box in the future that only the printer and an editor would be able to open.

The theft was perfectly timed, Martin said, because the altered issue was the last one of the semester and two weeks elapsed before the newspaper staff could explain the incident in print. He said a brief explanation was printed in the first summer issue, along with the editorials that were supposed to run the day of the switch.

He said the staff this year has been plagued by internal bickering and politicking, and the result of the incident was that, “something internal ends up being very public.”

“We’re trying to learn from it, but we’re trying to move on,” he said.


Fall 1996, reports