Newspaper theft on the rise

Number of incidents reported to SPLC this fall nearly doubles from 2004, 2005 statistics

The number of newspaper theft incidents is on the rise compared to previous years' statistics, with 15 incidents reported to the Student Press Law Center thus far this school year. 

In 2004 and 2005, only eight incidents each year had been reported by the end of the fall semester.While advisers and experts say they are unsure why there have been a higher number of thefts reported this fall, a variety of factors could be to blame ' from the way administrators have handled theft cases in the past to an increased awareness of campus newspaper theft coverage. 

Many of the reported incidents were connected to controversial articles published in the papers.

"It's a sign that the problem of newspaper theft is not going away," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. 

Goodman also said theft is an "inappropriate response" to disagreements with a publication and that administrators can do more to prevent it. 

At the University of Kentucky, about 4,000 copies of the student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, were taken from news stands in November. 

The stolen issue featured an article about a toxicology report stating that alcohol may have been involved in the deaths of two students and an alumna earlier in the year. Student editors said they were not surprised to find copies missing because family and friends of the deceased pleaded with the editors not to print the article on the toxicology report. 

Campus police are still investigating the theft.At the University of Tulsa, students took copies of The Collegian from distribution bins in November and returned them with unauthorized inserts depicting a newspaper staff member extending her middle finger. 

Editors believe the act was in retaliation for an article published in the issue about an investigation into the student government's fund allocation procedures. Tulsa administrators say that they are actively pursuing the case and are investigating individuals who may have been involved.

The conservative student newspaper GuardDawg at University of Georgia had 1,200 copies of their paper stolen and their distribution bins vandalized in September. Staff members found the bins with the words 'communist,' 'gay' and 'homo.' Editors filed a report with the university's police department, which listed the case as criminal trespassing. 

Publisher David Kirby said he believed the paper was targeted because of its conservative slant. Kirby said no one has been found responsible for the theft and vandalism. The Daily Tar Heel at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had 10,000 copies taken in November from news stands by fraternity members. The stolen issue featured an article about the fraternity's hazing violations. Leaders of the fraternity, who hours after distribution admitted to the theft, said members were under the impression that the newspaper was free and therefore could be taken. 

The Daily Tar Heel agreed not to press criminal charges after the fraternity agreed to apologize and pay for the stolen issues. 

Jennifer Chancellor, adviser to the University of Tulsa's Collegian, said college media publications are sometimes not taken "as seriously" as other outside publications.

"[College] newspapers have been around for decades and are established institutions just like any other legitimate newspaper," Chancellor said. "I don't think those students who behave in that kind of manner really understand [that]." 

The correct response

Goodman said that while university officials have traditionally treated such incidents as pranks, prevention of newspaper theft depends on how well administrators handle the cases that do occur.

"I think the biggest deterrent is how college officials respond if a theft occurs," Goodman said. "If they condemn the theft and pledge to discipline anyone caught, I think that decreases the likelihood that a theft will happen again"

Goodman also said that there seems to be a shift in how administrators are handling theft cases this year.

"I think there's more of an understanding among officials why [newspaper theft is] not acceptable," Goodman said.

In Indiana, three schools reported newspaper theft incidents within a two-week period in October. Newspaper staff members at Ball State University and Indiana State University reported that copies of their newspapers were stolen during homecoming week. About 7,000 copies of the Ball State Daily News and 600 copies of The Indiana Statesman were missing. No one has been found responsible for the theft at Ball State University. 

Two individuals at Indiana State University admitted taking copies of the Statesman to paper mache a parade float, said adviser Merv Hendricks. Hendricks also said that in the two cases of newspaper theft that occurred at Indiana State University in the past few years, campus security has been quick in its investigation and administrators have pursued the cases through the school's internal disciplinary system.

But Hendricks noted the difficulty in pressing criminal charges against newspaper theft perpetrators, although there seems to be more awareness of the issue. 

He said county prosecutors usually do not put newspaper theft within the same categories as other crimes. Staff members of University of Southern Indiana's student newspaper, The Shield, wanted to file a police report after 2,300 copies were stolen this year, but the school's publications board recommended that the incident be investigated by the university. 

Shield adviser Patricia Ferrier said many on the staff were unhappy with the decision, and that prosecution is important in letting readers know that student newspapers have as much credibility as their commercial counterparts. The case is still open, but Ferrier said no one has been found responsible for the theft.Ferrier said students in one of her classes are currently looking into how to get a newspaper theft law passed in the state of Indiana. 

California, Maryland and Colorado are the only states that have laws making the theft of free newspapers a crime. But other states have prosecuted newspaper thieves under general theft or destruction of property statutes.Once a theft does occur, Goodman suggested that staff members immediately file a police report. There are also additional steps students can take to prevent newspaper theft, such as listing a monetary value somewhere on the newspapers. After the first case of newspaper theft at Utah's Weber State University four years ago, newspaper staff members added a disclaimer to the paper stating that while the first copy of The Signpost is free, additional papers are 50 cents each. 

In October, Signpost staff members reported the paper's third theft case in the past four years. The disclaimer allowed staff members to put a value to the missing newspapers when they reported the incident to campus security. Editor in Chief Maria Villasenor said the case is still open but campus security is classifying it as "inactive."

At Tulane University, The Hullabaloo took a different approach in dealing with a newspaper theft incident. Tired of the university's lack of action when large numbers of newspaper copies disappear from racks, staff members billed a fraternity for taking about 400 papers to use for a party. 

Editor in Chief Drew Dickson said there have been three theft incidents in the past two years at the university, but administrators have been slow in their response. Instead of filing a report and having to go through a university disciplinary process, adviser Chantal Bailliet said the Hullabaloo is treating the most recent theft as a simple "business transaction."

Goodman said that newspaper staff members should speak to campus security and administrators before a theft happens to determine what kind of response to expect if an incident occurs. Goodman said university administrators are beginning to have a greater understanding of why newspaper theft is unacceptable.

"I do feel there is more than just lip service when it comes to newspaper theft," Goodman said. "There's more objection to it than we've seen in past years."

Visit the Student Press Law Center's Newspaper Theft Forum

newspaper theft, reports, Winter 2006-07