Thieves 'trash-talk' papers; editors want culprits bagged


Campus police investigate known suspects, but still debate whether theft of free papers is punishable





In what has become a routine method of stifling the work of student journalists, thieves nationwide this spring stole and trashed thousands of copies of college newspapers.

Although the task of catching culprits often presents a challenge to law enforcement officials, two newspapers determined suspects and motives and another caught a thief red-handed.

In March three football players at Framingham State College in Massachusetts admitted to stealing at least 1,000 copies of the student newspaper, The Gatepost. The theft was a reaction to an article that alleged members of the football team had forced first-year players to drink excessive amounts of alcohol during an annual hazing ritual.

Campus police also identified a fourth suspect, a female who participated in the thefts with the football players. Although details of the punishments administered were not available, school spokesperson Peter Chisholm said they could include suspension from the football team and reimbursement for printing costs.

Desmond McCarthy, adviser to the independent weekly, said the four students also will be required to meet with him to discuss the First Amendment. He said the college handled the incident correctly.

'The journalism was taken seriously by the school, and the school's response to the theft was entirely supportive,' McCarthy said.

Coverage in another college's newspaper prompted a newspaper theft in February, but this time the alleged thief's motive has been debated.

Four hundred copies of The Ranger, weekly newspaper at San Antonio College in Texas, were snatched by a campus cybercaf' student manager, who claimed he wanted additional copies to promote the caf' with a front-page article about the establishment.

But one student said manager Ron Smith had expressed anger over the article, which reported that all food sales at the caf' were halted until it received proper city food licenses. Journalism professor Chet Hunt said a staff photographer found a bundle of the papers under a table in the caf' out of view of customers.

'We're not happy because it deprived 400 students in one of our main classroom buildings from picking up copies at our optimum distribution time on Friday morning,' Hunt said.

Student Life Director Kathy Armstrong denied that Smith stole The Ranger, but said if Smith had collected copies other than for promotion, it would have been inappropriate. She also lambasted the front-page article, calling the food code violation 'much ado about nothing' and the newspaper reporting 'a gross misrepresentation.'

Campus police officers are investigating, but one officer said he is unsure whether Smith's actions constitute a crime. Hunt remains adamant that any mass collection of papers without the staff's consent is wrong.

The editor in chief of The Indy, an independent weekly newspaper at Illinois State University, received quite a surprise in April as he restocked a rack on campus.

'A student came up to me and asked to see them,' said John Wilson, editor in chief, in a statement to Illinois State University administrators. 'He then took the papers and threw them in the trash.'

Wilson talked with the student about the legality of destroying newspapers. The student told him that he, along with friends, regularly destroy the newspaper. Wilson said the student also said if any newspapers were remaining in the rack in 10 minutes, he would also throw those away.

'It was kind of unusual because I've never come across someone who stole papers and asserted they had a right to do so,' Wilson said. 'I was writing down what he was saying as he was saying it and he gave me his name when I asked for it, even spelled it out. He seemed quite proud of it.'

Wilson said that while the situation at first was almost amusing, it became serious when he realized this student could have destroyed hundreds of newspapers this year. He and other student editors eventually called the police, but the student left before they arrived. Wilson said although newspaper theft has not been a major problem in the past, he has learned a great deal from this experience.

'College newspapers are very vulnerable, and it's been proven time and time again,' Wilson said. 'In most cases it's not done on a consistent basis, but it's always out there and I don't know what can be done to stop it beyond educating people not to do this.'

Wilson said university police are looking into the matter, but he said they seemed unclear about what steps to take. As of press time, Wilson had received no response from the administration.


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reports, Spring 2003