California Thievin'


Six thefts of the University of California, Berkeley's Daily Californian head a long list of disappearing publications this year





CALIFORNI A— During the 1960s, the University of California, Berkeley stood at the forefront of a progressive movement on campuses across the country to bring free speech to college students.

More than 30 years later, UC Berkeley leads the nation again but this time free speech is getting a raw deal.

The university’s newspaper, The Daily Californian, experienced six thefts of its newspaper during the last school year, all alleged responses to stories dealing with and mostly opposing affirmative action.

From the first theft of almost 23,000 papers before elections in November to a string of thefts in the spring, editors at The Daily Californian are beginning to rethink the progress their campus has made.

“It’s surprising,” said editor in chief Ryan Tate, “especially on this campus where there’s a tradition of cherishing and respecting freedom of speech.”

Tate said he watched students hold a candlelight vigil for the late free speech activist Mario Savio, and at the same time witnessed students burning copies of the newspaper.

California’s Proposition 209 is believed to be a main reason behind the thefts and vandalism.

The initiative to outlaw affirmative action was approved by California voters in November 1996.

One day before the election, an editorial ran in The Daily Californian supporting Proposition 209. About 4,000 copies of the issue soon disappeared from stands. The staff decided to reprint the editorial in the next issue, but experienced the largest theft yet 23,000 copies.

And the list continues. From January to May the newspaper experienced four more thefts, ranging from 3,000 stolen Jan. 28, to 10,000 copies stolen on May 2 after a column ran blasting anti-Proposition 209 protesters. In some instances, members of the staff have had to guard their distribution points.

Tate said the university police department was “hesitant” to get involved at first, but it has since taken steps to find out who is responsible for the thefts and now the department believes that these are definitely punishable crimes.

“When we first reported the thefts to them they were a little skeptical,” Tate said. “Within a day they turned around and their position changed. A lot of people don’t realize that stealing papers is a crime.”

University police Capt. Bill Cooper said the department was initially unaware of how big the newspaper theft problem would be, but took an active interest “particularly once we saw the scope of it.

“There’s a couple of groups everybody suspects,” Cooper said. “In any of [the cases] it’s not something in which we’ve had advanced surveillance. It’s hard to monitor all the locations. You’d have to get into controlled distribution.”

Cooper added that in finding suspects and deterring others from trying it, there is not one specific thing that can be done. But it helps when the community is aware that when they see the thefts occur, they know it is a crime.

TEXAS — Lamar University’s student newspaper, University Press, is negotiating with the parents of a high school student to receive $6,400 in lost advertising money after he admitted stealing copies of the April 30 issue.

The student was one of nine suspected students at the Beaumont school responsible for the theft of more than 3,000 newspapers. Staff members of the newspaper believe it was a response to an article and photo they printed about a high school student’s suicide.

The students were all believed to be members of the Texas Academy for Leadership in the Humanities, a high school for gifted students, which is on the Lamar University campus.

Academy student Gabriel Kelley hanged himself near a campus dormitory on April 29. The issue contained a short article about the suicide in the bottom right of the front page and included a photo of authorities rolling out a gurney with the body.

According to Allan Pearson, former editor in chief of University Press, the staff debated the issue of printing the article and photo all day, but they decided it was appropriate to print.

“It took us all a little bit by surprise,” Pearson said about the thefts. “We knew we would have problems, but not to this degree.”

As soon as newspapers hit the stands they quickly ended up in recycling bins and dumpsters.

“We kept putting [the newspapers] out, and they would disappear pretty quickly,” said Andy Coughlan, assistant to the director of student publications.

The academy student caught in connection with the thefts is now negotiating with the paper to name the other students involved and pay the lost advertising money from the issue, in exchange for dropping any criminal charges.

“There was $6,400 riding on this, so it was enough to be a felony offense,” said Howard Perkins, director of Student Publications and adviser for the paper.

CALIFORNIA— Student government representatives at the University of California, Santa Barbara decided to start their own club to respond to what they thought was unfair coverage in the campus newspaper, the Daily Nexus.

Headed by Associated Student President Russell Bartholow, they formed S.A.V.E. — Students Against Vicious Editorials, and “protested” by stealing more than 500 newspapers and taking them back to the editorial office. The newspaper published photos of the students carrying stacks back to the Daily Nexus office in the next issue.

The students who stole the papers claimed they were only demonstrating their right to freedom of expression.

“We had massive amounts of people decrying what had happened,” said editor in chief Marc Valles.

The staff took its complaint to a campus disciplinary committee. Valles said he could not comment regarding the outcome.

“We are satisfied with the decision of the student-faculty committee,” Valles said.

MASSACHUSETTS— Two students at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill have been reprimanded by school officials after they admitted stealing about 2,000 copies of the campus newspaper, the Observer.

“What [the reprimand] means practically speaking I have no idea,” said newspaper adviser Joseph LeBlanc, who originally caught the two students removing copies of the Sept. 20, 1996, issue from newsstands.

LeBlanc expressed his satisfaction that action was taken against the students involved, but he felt the college did not handle the theft and the investigation as seriously as the situation warranted.

“I think [the college] was great at first,” he said. “We were pleased in that they didn’t just say ‘[the newspaper] was free so who cares.’

“But when push came to shove, they didn’t seem willing to punish them at all.”

The two students admitted stealing the papers to protest opinion columns that criticized the welfare system.

According to Ernie Greenslade, director of public relations for Northern Essex, the college decided to handle the situation internally with the two students and not pursue criminal prosecution. But the case has led the school to clarify its policy on newspaper thefts.

Greenslade said LeBlanc and college officials are working to draft the new policy which will be displayed at all Observer distribution points and reinforce the newspaper’s First Amendment rights.

The notices also will state that only the first issue of the Observer will be free, and any other issues must be received by calling the newspaper office.

But students that decide to steal newspapers may face more than reprimands from universities if new legislation passes in Massachusetts. Despite claims that many college newspapers are “free,” criminal theft charges may become easier to prosecute.

State Sen. James Jajuga (D-Methuen) and Sen. Brian Dempsey (DHaverhill) are still working to push an anti-newspaper theft bill through the state legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Other theft incidents

The following are the most recent thefts reported to the Student Press Law Center. the date and number of copies stolen are in parentheses:

  • The Golden Gater, San Francisco State University (April, 6,000)
  • The Western Front, Western Washington University (May, 400)
  • Daily 49er, California State University, Long Beach (May, 10,000)
  • The Daily Targum, Rutgers University (May, 4,000)
  • Vista, Central Oklahoma University (June, 2,500)


Fall 1997, reports