City outlaws theft of free newspapers

But thefts continue at many universities, and those responsible often go unpunished

As in years past, student newspapers across the country have suffered thefts in which thousands of copies have disappeared from distribution racks with little chance of prosecution of the perpetrators.

But at least in the city of Berkeley, Calif., stealing free newspapers is now legally prohibited. 

The Berkeley City Council unanimously approved a city ordinance banning free newspaper theft in October, making it one of only a handful of jurisdictions in the United States with such a provision.

The ordinance stemmed from an incident in November 2002 when Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, then a candidate for the office, trashed 1,000 copies of the University of California at Berkeley student newspaper, The Daily Californian, because it endorsed his opponent.

A month later, Bates admitted to stealing the newspapers, resulting in negative national media coverage and a guilty plea by Bates to charges of petty theft. Immediately after the theft, Bates paid restitution to The Daily Californian and pledged to support an ordinance banning newspaper theft.

Though Berkeley’s new ordinance creates no penalties for free newspaper theft that did not already exist under California’s petty theft law, it reaffirms legal protections of student and free newspapers.

“It’s a largely symbolic measure,” said Eric Schewe, editor in chief of The Daily Californian. “It explicitly states [the illegality] of actions that were only implicit.”

The Daily Californian has faced frequent theft problems. In addition to the incident involving Bates, a second theft occurred in May 2003 when a group of students took nearly 2,500 copies of the newspaper in protest of coverage that those students claimed was racist.

“It does happen, I would say, every nine months to year,” Schewe said. “Either theft or the threat of theft.”

The biggest theft of The Daily Californian occurred in 1996 when the newspaper endorsed California Proposition 209, a heavily debated initiative that banned the use of affirmative action in state hiring and college admissions. The entire press run of 23,000 disappeared before newspapers could reach distribution points.

In a report to city council members, Berkeley City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque wrote that the ordinance would help guide prosecutors in future thefts.

“There is no specific and clear law that prohibits the unauthorized removal of free newspapers,” she wrote. “This ordinance would codify such a law so that the prosecutor has a clear basis to prosecute such conduct.”

Schewe said that the protection was important because of the vital role that student newspapers play on college campuses.

“Free newspapers are very important to college students,” Schewe said. “College students are learning their lifelong habits and when they don’t have to plunk down a quarter [for a newspaper], it fosters the habit of reading newspapers.”

Theft of free newspapers is a common problem at college campuses. Student newspaper editors reported 28 thefts in the last academic year to the Student Press Law Center. Many of the thefts were adjudicated in campus disciplinary hearings rather than in municipal courts. 

This school year, thefts have continued to be a problem around the country and many student editors are pressing for criminal prosecution.

At Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, 7,500 copies of the student newspaper Sidelines went missing in August from distribution racks, leaving only a few hundred copies.

The copies disappeared on the morning of Aug. 28 when Sidelines printed a front-page story that reported that two fraternities owed more than $60,000 each in rent on their fraternity houses.  School administrators and newspaper officials said they believe the story may be the cause for the disappearance.

The story was published during rush week, and Patrick Chinnery, editor in chief of Sidelines, said that he believed fraternity members feared that the article would have a negative effect on pledge recruitment.

Chinnery said the theft resulted in financial losses of $5,100 from advertising revenue, printing costs and payroll. He said that if anyone were caught, he would push for prosecutors to press felony charges as any theft of more than $1,000 constitutes a felony in Tennessee.

At the time of the theft, campus administrators condemned it. Robert Glenn, vice president of student affairs, wrote a letter to the editor in Sidelines saying that the university would not tolerate theft in addition to talking to suspected fraternity members.

Though the university investigated the disappearance, it was unable to find any solid leads. Glenn cited one example in which a woman saw two white males with a bundle of newspapers in the back of their pick-up truck.

Because of the number of people that match that description, investigating such a tip is “like going down to the rock quarry and looking for a quarter under a rock,” Glenn said.

A similar theft occurred at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, where editors of the student newspaper The Vanguard said that they believed a story about the Student Government Association resulted in nearly 3,000 of 8,000 copies of the newspaper being stolen in October.

Editor Jamie Sims said 2,954 copies of The Vanguard were stolen from 10 campus distribution points Oct. 27, just hours after the newspaper published a story and editorial about student government officials using student activity fees to pay for their cell phones.

Sims said that she suspected the newspapers were stolen as a result of the story that reported that student activity fees fund between $120 and $170 for cell phones usage each month for three top Student Government Association officials.

Sims estimated that the newspaper lost $2,953 because of the theft. The newspaper prints a disclaimer on each issue notifying readers that the first copy is free and each additional copy costs $1, Sims said.

Sims said the university decided to turn over the investigation of the theft to the  school’s Office of Judicial Affairs. Because student fees help support The Vanguard, Sims said the university named itself as the victim of the theft and would not release information about the investigation to the newspaper staff.

The University of Central Florida Future fell victim to two separate thefts in less than a week, one on Oct. 9 and the second on Oct. 16.

Brian Linden, publisher of The Future, said that after the first incident on Oct. 9, the newspaper decided not to pursue the incident with campus or local police.

But Sports Editor Ashley Burns said he witnessed the second theft on Oct. 16, and editors at The Future called upon police and school officials to conduct an investigation into the thefts.

“For some reason, I just see this girl … and I realize that she’s got a stack of newspapers about a foot-and-a-half high, heading toward the trash can” Burns said of the second theft. 

Linden did not have an estimate for the cost of the second theft, but estimated that 1,000 copies of the newspaper’s 14,000 press run were stolen at a cost of approximately $1,000 in the first theft.

Linden said he is pressing campus and local police, as well as the school’s Office of Student Conduct, to conduct an investigation.

“I filed a report with the police and tried to convince them that, indeed, this was a criminal act,” he said. “Basically, [the local police] want a letter from the district attorney that says that this is something prosecutable,” before they investigate.

Linden said that after repeated requests to the district attorney failed to yield an investigation, he asked the university’s student board of conduct to examine the thefts. Their investigation is ongoing.

At the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, more than 3,000 copies of the student newspaper the Exponent were stolen in October, a loss of about $3,700 for the newspaper. 

The motive for the theft, according to faculty adviser Art Ranney, was unclear.

“It’s possible that this was done in retaliation for Exponent coverage,” Ranney said. “It [also] could’ve been a homecoming prank.”

The university police are investigating the case, and if they catch anyone, they plan on referring the thief to the district attorney’s office. Depending on whether the attorney factored lost ad revenue and salaries into the value of the theft, or only included printing costs, a thief could face a misdemeanor or felony.

At Purdue University in Indiana, more than 4,000 bundled copies of The Exponent wound up in a trash container behind a fraternity house over a span of two weeks in late October.

Patrick Kuhnle, publisher and general manager of The Exponent, said he thought the theft was not prompted by controversial news coverage. He speculated that the thefts resulted from a fraternity hazing ritual.

Since first observing the stolen newspapers, Kuhnle said that he has monitored loading docks and marked newspapers to determine if any additional newspapers were stolen. He also photographed the stolen newspapers in the trash container and showed the photographs to police. 

Kuhnle said he did not detect any additional missing newspapers until Oct. 30, when he walked by the trash container and saw “literally thousands of papers, multiple day’s papers [of The Exponent] and multiple [other] papers.”

Police investigated the theft and charged the fraternity with theft and hazing, as well as two individual fraternity members with theft, Kuhnle said. Because the theft is being adjudicated by the university, their punishments cannot be released.

Kuhnle estimated the losses at approximately $350 in printing costs and $1,100 in ad revenue costs for close to $1,450 in total losses. 

More than 3,000 copies of the Texas A&M University at Kingsville student newspaper the South Texan were stolen in October, and an acquaintance of the thief returned them the next day.

According to Campus Police Chief Sandra Jefferson, Melissa Diaz returned the newspapers after an acquaintance had stolen them to suppress an article about Diaz being charged with contributing to the intoxication of minors at a party.

“The young man who took them thought he was helping out when he wasn’t,” Jefferson said. 

Dean of Students David Braverman declined to release the identity of the responsible student or state his punishment, but said that the case would be adjudicated on campus and that the punishment would likely be more lenient because the newspapers were returned.

“He brought the newspapers back, you take that into consideration,” Braverman said. “For someone who is taking newspapers, I might have them do community service for the newspaper.”

According to South Texan Editor in Chief Nancy Martinez Russell, the newspaper would have lost $1,400 in printing costs and $800 in ad revenue had the newspapers not been returned.

LAW: Berkeley, Cal. Code tit. 13, ch. 54 (2003).

reports, Winter 2003-04