Concealing newspapers can qualify as theft

In the cases of the more than 7,100 campus newspapers stolen this past year, the circumstances were clear: Free newspapers were removed from stands in overt acts of theft, amounting to thousands of dollars in stolen property. In other situations, it can be unclear what, if any, crime has been committed.

At Boston University this past spring, Daily Free Press staffers became concerned when they heard rumors about staff at the Admissions Reception Center hiding copies of their paper. Specifically, copies that prominently displayed stories about the "Craigslist killer," allegedly a BU medical student accused of murder and robbery, were said to be in a "huge pile" in a back room, according to an April Daily Free Press article.

"Whether it's theft or not is a tricky question," said Kase Wickman, the Daily Free Press reporter who covered the hidden newspapers situation, in an e-mail. "From the newspaper side, it's easy to see it as stealing, because we pay our own printing costs and would clearly like those papers to see the light of day."

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said if a person conceals newspapers so they are no longer useful with the passage of time, they have deprived the paper of valuable property, which could qualify as theft.

"That's not to say that people should be criminally prosecuted for misunderstandings, but people should understand that it's a serious matter to take newspapers away from the readers and even the best of intentions doesn't justify that," LoMonte said.

BU's Executive Director of Media Relations Colin Riley said to consider the incident of hidden newspapers as theft is "silly." He also said the hiding newspapers accusation was a "rather exaggerated claim."Riley said BU does not engage in censorship, and an individual acting alone committed any incidence of hiding newspapers.

"This was just one person," Riley said. "If one person makes a bad decision, how does that accrue?"LoMonte said even if an individual makes the decision to hide newspapers on their own, they could still be committing theft.

"It's more worrisome if it's the official policy of higher up university administrators to hide newspapers," LoMonte said. "Even if it's just an individual employee, that person should suffer some consequences -- even if it's just a reprimand and a talking to."

-- By Catherine MacDonald

Fall 2009, reports