Stolen words


Newspaper theft acts as form of censorship that hurts money, content





From Florida to Texas, newspaper thieves are learning after the first free copy of a newspaper, if they do not pay monetarily, they will pay somehow. But theft prevention tips may help to thwart a thief’s plan and save the newspaper money.

Just as a newspaper bandit surfaced at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, Texas, making off with 1,361 newspapers, the University of Texas at El Paso, reported 3,500 newspapers were stolen. The University of Central Arkansas, in Conway, Ark., reported 1,300 stolen newspapers, too. And the University of Tampa in Florida, in two separate incidents, reported about 800 stolen newspapers collectively.

In each incident, the thief sought to suppress information, ranging from a homecoming queen’s fans trying to preserve her image to a professor wanting to withhold bad news from incoming students.

Thieves

At Tampa, racks once filled with Minaret newspapers were emptied but not by readers. A professor who did not want incoming students to read about a crime that took place on campus disposed of the papers and later admitted to the act. And a few months later, a student stole newspapers because of a “cheer or jeer” section that jeered God.

While Tampa was having problems keeping its newspaper in the racks and out of trash bins, editors at TCU and UCA were experiencing similar situations. At TCU, a student dumped more than 1,300 copies of the Daily Skiff because he thought the it went too far in publishing a picture of his favorite professor, who was allegedly involved in a domestic violence dispute. A few days later, the thief confessed. Empty racks at UCA left speculation that an editorial critical of the Student Government president caused the theft. And at UTEP, an article covering the resignation of a homecoming queen prompted thieves wearing sorority and fraternity symbols to dump the newspapers.

Punishment

As the student staffs filed police reports, most posted editorials explaining why stealing newspapers is considered theft. At Tampa, Peter Arrabal, Minaret editor in chief, discovered that a university-issued punishment took six months with little results.

“I’m pretty sure that if we had gone to the Tampa Police Department, we would have seen full restitution, and she would have actually had to do some real community service in lieu of jail time,” Arrabal said in reference to the second theft.

He said the campus police took weeks to review videotapes and gave the thief a “ludicrous” punishment. The Minaret thief was fined $150 and forced to work 20 hours at the newspaper. The Minaret has not received the money but was notified that the student’s record was on hold until the she paid.

“If this happens at another school, I’d advise them to skip the campus police. Go directly to the local police department,” said Arrabal.

The Daily Skiff staff also took its case to the campus police and expects to receive about $700 for the stolen newspapers because of its policy that makes additional copies 50 cents.

The Echo at UCA and the Prospector at UTEP let the university handle their newspaper thefts. The investigations are ongoing. UTEP did not have a policy against unlimited free newspapers, and the Echo thief was never found.

“It was clear who it was, but with no concrete evidence to go off of, they basically pushed the case aside,” said Aprille Hanson, Echo editor in chief.

She advises other schools with theft problems to get the word out that it is a crime.

“I do not know if you can ever really prevent something like this, but surely you can make people aware,” she said.

Prevention

Some states are proactive in newspaper theft laws. California, Colorado and Maryland have laws that make emptying a box of free newspapers a punishable crime, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“Student publishers ought to be working with their press associations at getting more such laws enacted,” LoMonte said.

LoMonte said stealing newspapers is the most primitive form of censorship.

“It’s like burning books — because you disagree with something you read, you decide that nobody else should get to read it,” he said.

Ronald Collins, scholar at the First Amendment Center, suggests newspapers should post a sign that says after a certain amount of free copies, taking additional papers would be considered a crime.

In case of theft, LoMonte said the first thing is to gather all the information you can and try to figure out how many papers were taken and how much ad revenue was lost.

He said that the newspapers should consider reprinting the stolen edition online, placing signs on the distribution bins or notices in the next newspaper telling people where to go.

“You want to make sure the theft doesn’t succeed in blocking information from getting out,” LoMonte said.

Although the thefts left newspaper racks bare, more was lost than just the papers.

“I felt like I had been robbed personally, not of my property, but of my time,” Arrabal said.


reports, Winter 2008-09