Catholic University newspapers stolen, area police refuse to investigate

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After nearly 3,000 copies of Catholic University of America's student newspaper, the Tower, were found trashed around the Washington D.C. campus last week, editors are concerned police officials are taking the theft too lightly.

Last Friday Tower editors discovered half of their press run -- typically 5,000 copies -- in campus garbage bins instead of newsstands, and an editorial cartoon commenting on the paper's gay-rights coverage was ripped from that issue and posted on the Tower's office door.

Tower News Editor Justine Garbarino and other staffers suspect they know the culprit based on tips from passersby and a process of elimination. When they called the Metropolitan Police Department to report the theft and offer up the information they had, Garbarino said, Tower editors were told there was nothing the MPD could do because "they're free papers so it's not a criminal act."

According to Israel James, MPD public information officer, he originally advised Tower editors that theft of free newspapers is not illegal, but said the amount of papers taken "brings up a question."

Garbarino said she and others from the newspaper spoke with several MPD officers from the 5th district and were unable to convince them to investigate the case. After consulting a supervisor, officers told Tower staffers the trashing of free papers is not a crime, Garbarino said. Asked why the incident does not fall within the MPD's purview, Lt. Ronald Wright of the MPD's 5th district claimed he had not heard of the theft and said, "I don't even know what you're talking about."

Tower editors are hopeful they will find better luck with CUA's Department of Public Safety. According to Garbarino, video footage from campus cameras might provide evidence of the theft, and although Public Safety officials will not let Tower editors review the tapes, they said they would look into them for suspicious activity.

Public Safety officials did not return calls for comment as of press time.

According to Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, stealing newspapers -- even free papers -- is a crime.

"That the owner of property does not charge for it does not mean the property has no value," Goldstein said. "If you win a contest for a car and someone sets the car on fire, they owe you a car even though you didn't pay for it."

While Colorado, California and Maryland are currently the only states with laws making the theft of free newspapers a crime, other states have prosecuted newspaper thieves under destruction of property or general theft statutes.

Finding the culprit is imperative to Tower editors who say they would like to recover monetary damages -- an average print run costs about $2,000 -- and at least partially reimburse advertisers. The lack of initiative on behalf of MPD and school officials to pursue the theft is disheartening, Garbarino said.

"We've been very frustrated with this whole process," she said. "We work very hard and we feel like we're kind of getting pushed aside."

This is not the first time newspapers have gone missing on the CUA campus. In 2006, a school official removed 150 copies of the Tower from bins outside the admissions office on a day prospective students would be visiting the school. The paper that week featured a front-page story on campus crime.

For More Information:

  • SPLC Newspaper Theft Forum

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