Criminalizing theft in question

Some colleges punish students for stealing newspapers; other colleges not so sure

Wen three students at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls emptied newspaper distribution bins all across campus and left ransom notes proclaiming themselves as the “Army of the Flying Squirrel,” the university took the act seriously. 

The university placed Chris Riepe, Robert Wicklund and Ashton Flinders on nonacademic probation for stealing 2,000 copies of the Student Voice’s April 25 issue. The students argued that they had no idea stealing free newspapers was a crime. The newspapers were redistributed and no money was lost.

The students were found guilty of the theft at a University Hearing Committee proceeding on May 13. Riepe and Wicklund will be on probation for the fall semester, Editor in Chief Jen Cullen said, and Flinders received one year of probation. He also is required to complete 10 hours of community service for the Student Voice, which could range from delivering newspapers to writing an essay on the importance of the First Amendment. 

The culprits were discovered after the newspaper editors received a “ransom” e-mail from Flinders demanding that they publish an apology for everything they ever printed. Flinders was identified after the editors asked a university IT staff member to search the campus computer logs. It was determined that Flinders was logged on to the campus computer where the email was sent. 

In an email written to Cullen after the theft, the “Army of the Flying Squirrel” apologized for taking the newspapers. 

“Squirrel Master remembers watching movies where college was nothing but pranks,” the students wrote. “We squirrels understand that you have put time and effort into the paper, but the papers were put in an area where they would be easy to find and accessible. It’s not like we threw them away or burned them.” 

Three other schools also handed down sanctions for newspaper theft last spring, but there is still a debate among campus judicial officials and university police officers as to what type of crime, if any, newspaper theft is. 

Investigations and sanctions vary from school to school. While some colleges punish students through campus judicial hearings or pass them off to state prosecutors, others argue that nothing can be done because they say stealing free newspapers is not a crime. 

John Zacker, president of the Association of Student Judicial Affairs, said newspaper theft is an obvious violation of most student conduct codes. He said some schools might consider stealing papers to be an interference with freedom of expression, at others it might fall under the category of disorderly conduct or theft of property or services. But nonetheless, Zacker said newspaper theft is something universities should always investigate. 

At the University of Connecticut, school officials sanctioned students for removing newspapers from their distribution bins. Six students were charged with violating the college protesting policy for taking nearly the entire 10,000 press run of The Daily Campus in February 

Sam Miller, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, said the incident was a newspaper “relocation,” not a theft. He refused to comment on details of the students’ sanctions or reveal their names. 

The students took the newspapers and placed them in clear garbage bags near the library, in protest of a controversial commentary in The Daily Campus. The piece claimed that the school’s African American Cultural Center was propagating racism by holding events exclusively for black students. According to Miller, the students had every intention of returning the newspapers. 

“It was clear that the intent was not to destroy or steal property but to perform a counter protest,” he said. “The students who did this argued that they didn’t steal the newspaper, they simply relocated them as a free-speech protest of what the paper had printed.”

The students argued that the paper belonged to them, Miller said, because all students pay a $7 per semester student activity fee that helps fund the paper. The students said they were relocating their own property.

Editor Courtney Hickson said because all students pay the fee, everyone is entitled to only one copy. 

 “The paper is for the entire student body, and they hurt the entire student body by not allowing any student to get it,” she said.

Hickson said she was angry that the school did not treat the students’ actions as theft.  

According to Zacker, all universities investigate newspaper theft differently and give different sanctions because no student conduct code is alike. He said it is unlikely that a university student conduct code would include a specific rule pertaining to newspaper theft. 

He said a standard penalty or charge should not be applied for all incidents of newspaper theft. Instead, specific penalties should be handed down on a case by case basis.  

Although names and punishments were not released, two other colleges punished newspaper thieves last spring. 

At South Dakota State University, the school judicial board sanctioned two students who were found responsible for stealing 2,325 copies of The Collegiate in February. Newspaper editors said the theft was an attempt to stifle an editorial endorsement of a student government president candidate. 

University spokesperson Doug Wermedal said the two students turned themselves in to campus authorities two days after the theft. 

And four students at Framingham State College in Massachusetts were punished for stealing 1,000 copies of the student newspaper in February. Editors said the theft was in retaliation for an article that alleged that members of the football team had forced first-year players to participate in a hazing ritual. 

Three football players admitted to the theft and campus police discovered a third culprit after they sifted through campus surveillance videos. The students were ordered to pay full restitution of about $400 to The Gatepost and meet with the paper’s adviser to discuss the First Amendment and its relation to newspaper theft, said adviser Desmond McCarthy. In addition, the three students were also removed from the football team. 

Other school officials and county prosecutors remain unsure whether they should investigate when newspapers go missing.

At Vincennes University in Indiana, university police are turning over an investigation to the county prosecutor to determine if the former student government president played a part in the theft of almost all of the 2,000 copies of The Trailblazer. 

According to the paper’s editors the theft was in response to the paper’s spoof April Fool’s Day edition. In particular, one article mocked the school beauty pageant, “Miss VU,” by proposing it be renamed “Miss Nude VU.” The article was accompanied by blacked out photos of naked women.   

The editors said they saw a student member of the board of trustees stealing copies of The Trailblazer. They also said they overheard the student government president, Lathon Harney, telling other students to confiscate the paper. According to Tim Turner, former sports editor, Harney argued that the special edition of The Trailblazer was inappropriate because it was released during parents’ weekend. 

The county prosecutor would investigate possible intimidation charges against Harney, said Jim Jones, assistant police chief at Vincennes. 

University spokesperson Terry Brown said the university attorney investigated the case and determined that newspaper theft is not a crime. Regardless, Brown said the university could not sanction Harney and another student, who was seen taking the newspapers, because both graduated. 

In California, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office investigated and dropped charges against two students who were arrested in May for stealing papers at the University of California at Berkeley

The district attorney decided not to pursue charges against Wale Sean Forrester and Aluma Raymond Nkele for allegedly stealing 1,300 copies of The Daily Californian.

John Adams, assistant district attorney for Alameda County, said he did not charge the students because he hoped the university would give stricter sanctions to them. If found guilty by the district attorney, he said they would only face a petty theft infraction, which carries a fine of about $25. 

Neal Rajmaira, director of student judicial affairs, said the university will continue its investigation into the May 7 and 8 thefts. An unknown number of UC Berkeley students trashed more than 3,000 copies of The Daily Cal in protest of what they said was a biased article about a black football player who had been arrested on assault charges. 

University police said Forrester was involved in stealing 1,000 newspapers on Sproul Plaza and that Nkele took 300 copies near the Valley Life Sciences building. 

Forrester denied stealing any copies of The Daily Cal but he said he was upset about the article because it was about his friend, Michael Gray.  

Marie Felde, university spokesperson, said the university considers newspaper theft to be a serious offense. 

“From the chancellor on down, newspaper theft has been condemned,” she said.  

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates proposed a city ordinance condemning newspaper theft, following his own involvement with one last fall. In January, he was fined $100 by the Alameda County District Attorney for his part in stealing 1,000 copies of the Daily Cal. Bates was attempting to stifle an election endorsement for his mayoral opponent. 

University of California Police Department Capt. Bill Cooper said stealing free newspapers is already considered a crime in California. 

“Even if they are distributed for free out there, they are intended to be distributed one at a time to individuals,” Cooper said. “So by taking them out of circulation, it does represent a financial loss for the paper in terms of loss of advertising revenues…as well as the actual production costs there might be.” 

School officials at the University of California at Riverside, however, came up with a different determination. University police initially investigated the theft of roughly 8,000 copies of the Highlander in May. But before any suspects could be identified the university dropped the investigation because they said that stealing free newspapers is not a crime. 

Vice Chancellor Jim Sandoval said the school determined that there was nothing that could be done to punish any possible suspects that might have been found.  

“Because they were left at a public distribution bin and there were no limits as to how many copies students could take, we did not investigate,” Sandoval said. “I clearly understand the frustration of our student newspaper but there was just a limit as to how much we could do.”

Highlander editors believe the theft was in response to an article that reported that a group of students addressed the student senate to criticize the university, the police department, and the schools Greek system for their “violence against women of color.” 

Scott Doner, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement, said newspaper theft can be considered a crime when money is lost. Even when the newspapers are redistributed and there are no financial setbacks, Doner said it is still a punishable offense. 

“As far as a crime, maybe it is not seen as one in the judge’s eyes,” he said. “But it is still a theft of a service that is provided to students, even if it is free.”

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Fall 2003, reports