Newspaper thefts spark new solutions

Schools across the country deal with policies for protecting papers

In recent years, the Student Press Law Center has heard from hundreds of student publications that have had problems with newspaper theft.

Since most student papers are distributed for free on campus, theft has become an easy method for would-be censors to block distribution, despite the fact that some newspaper thieves have been criminally prosecuted and others have been disciplined by school officials.

Each student newspaper deals with newspaper theft in a different way, and The Report maintains a theft list each issue to examine their solutions and on-going developments.

In a sad sign of the times, student editors may soon need to be issued rubber suits and gloves to perform their duties as more and more of them — in their fight to combat newspaper thieves — are being forced to rummage around grimy, ooze-filled university trash cans to search for stolen issues.

OREGON— Editor in chief Angela Potter and her staff at Portland State University joined the infamous “Dumpster Club” on April 10 after someone stole nearly the entire press run — about 3,000 copies — of the Daily Vanguard student newspaper.

A school janitor retrieved approximately 1,000 copies from the garbage can of a mens’ restroom, which Potter redistributed. She put about 200 copies of the retrieved newspapers in a newsrack in the student union center. Somebody stole those copies within minutes, Potter said.

The staff’s search for the other 2,000 copies turned up nothing.

While campus police have not formally named any suspects, an article critical of a student government candidate is believed to have triggered the theft.

Potter filed an incident report with the PSU campus security office but was later told they had dropped the investigation due to a lack of evidence and witnesses.

Potter said that she and her staff have spent a lot of time responding to the theft and the lack of a resolution frustrates her.

“It’s like it’s already been forgotten. They (the school administration) don’t want to waste their time on it,” Potter said.

UTAH — Unfavorable coverage regarding a student government candidate is also thought to have resulted in the April 10 dumping of at least 1,000 newspapers at Utah State University in Logan.

The Utah Statesman, the school’s student newspaper, had run an editorial cartoon that took what some readers apparently considered to be an unfair jab at a student body presidential candidate on the eve of the election. The cartoon accurately noted that the candidate remained on probation after being arrested on campus the previous fall.

According to editor in chief Lance Pitcher, he and the Statesman staff retrieved at least 1,000 copies of the paper after they spent much of the day grubbing around in dumpsters across campus. The newspaper had printed a total of 6,000 copies.

“It’s like book-burning,” Pitcher said. “They were stealing freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

MASSACHUSETTS — Last fall the dean of admissions at Clark University allegedly took 400 copies of Wheatbread, an alternative student newspaper which made fun of the school and the school’s official student paper.

At the time, campus police denied the act was an incident of theft, and said, “It was simply a matter of newspapers being moved from point A to point B.” Point B, apparently, was a recycling dumpster.

In February, Wheatbread editor Randy Mack met with the campus police chief and the dean of students.

At that meeting, Mack agreed to drop the theft charges if the university would agree to enact a student bill of rights, a student freedom of information act to give access to university and student government records and a student sevices “service pledge” to guarantee students courteous treatment from admininstrative staff.

The dean of students agreed to Mack’s suggestions, but they have yet to materialize. A hearing on the issue has been set for the first week of May.

SOUTH DAKOTA — At the University of South Dakota, three incidents of tampering with copies of the student newspaper have left editors frustrated.

On February 19, a stack of papers at one distribution site, delivered just hours before, vanished.

Editor Dominic Bonaiuto said he does not know who took them or what was done with them.

Previously, between 75 and 100 copies of the February 5 issue of The Volante were sabotaged.

Bonaiuto said that someone tore out part of the same page on each of the damaged copies.

Bonaiuto believes the saboteur was targeting a letter to the editor from a former student senator which chastised the current student senate for being unproductive and lazy.

The incident occurred at the same distribution site, the mass communications building, sometime between the time the paper was delivered at about 7:30 p.m. February 5 and early the next morning when someone notified the newspaper staff of what had happened.

Bonaiuto said he does not know who is responsible for either incident but may ask the university to investigate.

Staff members also plan to meet with campus security personnel to discuss strategies for protecting the papers, such as taking the papers into a locked office at night.

In October 1996, Volante editors were embarrassed when a student inserted fliers with a hand-drawn picture of and text describing human genitalia into 50-75 copies of the paper.

The incident “cheapened the reputation of the paper for people who found copies with that [flier] in it,” Bonaiuto said.

The Volante printed a notice in its next issue explaining that the flier had been placed in the papers without permission.

Bonaiuto said he learned the identity of the student who had inserted the fliers and was able to make him pay $50 to the paper, what it would have charged the student for an insertion order.

CALIFORNIA — Over 1,000 papers were stolen at College of the Canyons in March after the paper ran an editorial critical of the student government.

A report was filed with the campus police, and several students came forward to return the papers.

Editor John Woods said that the names of the students who came forward have not been released.

After the theft, Woods put wording into the paper’s flag that said single copies of the paper are free, but additional copies cost fifty cents.

Otherwise, Woods said, the papers are technically free and therefore can’t be considered “stolen.”

If the papers have a monetary value, Woods said, campus police will be more willing to investigate incidents of theft.

Woods had a related problem last fall when the student government inserted fliers into the paper, and is in the process of suing the student responsible in small claims court.

NEW YORK — The newspaper distribution manager at St. John’s University in Jamaica reported that three cars full of sorority members followed him on the evening of April 16 as he left copies of the Torch student newspaper at various campus drop sites. By the time he was done with his route, about 5000 copies of the Torch’s 5500 total press run were missing.

The stolen issue included a story on the university’s Greek system.

The school’s sororities have denied having any knowledge of the missing newspapers.

Nevertheless, the school’s Office of Student Life is investigating the theft and has suspended Gamma Chi sorority pending a preliminary investigation, according to Torch editor in chief Ignazio Messina.

While St. John’s officials will not comment until the investigation is complete they have said that they do have witnesses and are confident that the matter will be resolved.

That’s good news to Messina who says that the theft cost the Torch about $3500 in lost advertising revenue and production costs.

What pleases Messina most though, he says, is that the university appears to be taking the matter quite seriously.

In an interview with a Torch reporter, Jose Rodriguez, dean of student life at St. John’s said, “I am personally outraged by this. This was totally avoidable and I speak strongly about it because I feel strongly about it.”

The school is expected to announce the results of its investigation shortly.

TEXAS — When students at the University of North Texas in Denton went to pick up their student newspaper the morning of April 24 all they found was an anonymous handwritten note claiming that the issues had been taken because of the newspaper’s poor coverage of minority issues.

LynDee Stephens, the assistant managing editor of the North Texas Daily said that thieves took all 10,000 copies of the paper. Most were apparently taken within about a 15- minute period, which she believes indicates that more than one person was involved.

Nobody has claimed responsibility and none of the papers have been recovered.

Despite the note left behind, Stephens says she wonders whether unhappiness with the paper’s minority coverage is the real reason for the papers’ disappearance or just a smoke screen. She says the Daily has worked hard over the last few years to improve its minority coverage and its efforts have been generally applauded.

The April 24 incident followed the theft of approximately 3,000 copies of the previous day’s issue.

That issue included coverage of a university forum that discussed the teaching of gay and lesbian issues at the school, a topic that has been the source of much controversy, Stephens said.

Regardless of who did it, Stephens estimated that the two thefts cost the Daily approximately $5,000 in lost advertising revenue and production costs.

The paper has notified school officials, who have promised to investigate the matter. They also plan to file reports with both the university and city police.

reports, Spring 1997