Newspaper theft is a continuing problem for college publications

Mass theft of newspapers is a consistently reoccurring problem college journalists around the country face. The motive behind each instance is different, but every year thousands of student newspapers are removed from the stands, keeping them out of public hands.

In many cases, when student newspapers disappear from racks they are taken in response to controversial content published within that specific issue. In March, a press run of The Campus, the student newspaper at Ottawa University in Kansas, went missing after the newspaper ran an issue focusing on sex. A photograph of sexually positioned naked dolls was thought by Campus staff to have motivated the removal. More recently, copies of the Herald at Arkansas State University were allegedly stolen within two hours of hitting the stands the day an article was published exposing a sorority email that condoned underage drinking.

‘An opportunity to enlighten’

At the end of February, a small group of Texas A&M Corps of Cadets members removed copies of The Battalion before returning them later that day. The act was in response to The Battalion’s coverage of a Fighting Texas Aggie yell leader candidate who received a ticket for an alcohol-related incident.

Editor Matt Woolbright said each year the student body elects yell leaders, who serve as the official school spirit leaders at athletic events and are a members of the Corps of Cadets. Woolbright’s article ran shortly before yell leader elections.

Although the Corps members were quoted saying the newspapers were returned by 9 a.m., Woolbright said at 11 a.m. he did a sweep of campus, finding only about 30 to 40 newspapers on the main part of campus – out of the total press run of 18,000. By 3 p.m., Battalion staff checked campus again, finding 30 percent of the newspapers placed back in the racks by Woolbright’s estimation.

The Battalion compensated advertisers, whose ads went mostly unseen, by re-running all the ads for free, at a cost of $5,447.32 to the newspaper. Initially, the Battalion was looking to pursue restitution from the Corps through the university justice system, but has since decided to drop a judicial remedy.

“We’re not pursuing any financial remedy from those who took the newspapers because they returned them pretty quickly,” said Battalion General Manager Robert Wegener. “This was an opportunity to enlighten the campus community that it is a theft.”

The Battalion responded to the incident by publishing an article calling the act a theft in addition to an editorial by Woolbright titled “No Regrets,” defending the Battalion’s right to free speech amidst both student backlash and support.

The Corps of Cadets never apologized to the Battalion, something Wegener said he was never seeking, and it’s unknown whether any disciplinary action was taken within the Corps. Corps of Cadets Media Relations Coordinator Annette Walker said, at both the initial time of the incident and at a follow up, she knew nothing more than what the Battalion had published about the incident.

Flying Squirrel reflects

While the most consistent motive behind taking student newspapers is to cover up a controversy, it isn’t always the case. The act of stealing student newspapers has also been the focus of many college pranks, with no malicious intent other than humor.

In 2003, the SPLC reported a prank-gone-sour at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. A group of students calling themselves the “Army of the Flying Squirrel” took 2,000 out of 3,400 copies of the Student Voice to fill a professor’s office. A “ransom” email was sent to then-editor Jen Cullens demanding the Student Voice print on its front page a picture of a flying squirrel, a naked picture of actress Bea Arthur and a football helmet full of cottage cheese—the latter two demands a reference from the movie “Airheads.” The email, signed “Squirrel Master, a.k.a. ‘Big Nut,’” also demanded the Voice print a “public apology... for everything it has ever printed.” “Squirrel Master” threatened that if the demands were not met, the Voice would be taken again the following week.

Cullens received a tip early that morning by a Voice staff member about the displaced newspapers and quickly mobilized fellow staffers to redistribute the papers. Campus police were notified by newspaper staffers – who also began their own investigation. Cullens said an IT department employee traced the email to Ashton Flinders.

Looking back on the situation eight years later, Flinders – now pursuing his PhD in oceanography – said the “Flying Squirrels” were simply a group of friends having fun, with no malicious intentions.

“We weren’t the type of kids going out and drinking all the time and partying and causing trouble,” Flinders said. “I mean, we were all chemistry and physics majors—we were just kind of blowing off steam in our own way.”

Cullens recalled that she was in tough spot as editor of the Voice.

“We laughed at it because it was stupid and funny, but at the same time working on a student newspaper is very time consuming and you’ve got a full course load,” she said, adding that she was also working a full-time job. “I had no doubt that if we didn’t figure out who did it and if they didn’t get in trouble, that they would have tried to do the same thing the following week.”

The incident sparked a debate on campus over whether free student newspapers could be actually be “stolen.” Instead of pressing theft charges, the Voice pressed charges under a misconduct policy that states the university is an “environment that is safe from violence and free of harassment, fraud, theft, disruption and intimidation.”

The university judicial hearings resulted in a year of non-academic probation for Flinders and two other students involved. Flinders was also required to do 10 hours of community service to the newspaper by distributing the paper for two hours at a time on distribution days, which Cullens signed off on.

Flinders still has mixed feelings over the decision. He said delivering the newspapers wasn’t a big deal, but he felt “overtones of maliciousness” from the newspaper staff during the hearing process.

“A lot of the newspaper editorial staff kind of spun it into this personal attack, not just on the student newspaper, but on them personally. I guess I was a little disappointed that they took it this way,” Flinders said. “We all had a professor that we liked to play jokes on, so it kind of spun off the idea of filling his office with student newspapers. We didn’t destroy any newspapers.”

Cullen said she was very impressed with the decision from the university judicial hearings.

“I thought this is really great that they’re taking us seriously. They were very professional,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t know how to deal with newspaper theft. Our newspaper was free, so you run into this problem of whether it’s really theft. We explained that our staff got paid, advertisers paid, students pay through student fees to get the newspapers – so it’s free, but it’s not like there’s no money that goes into it.”

Go to jail, pay a fine

Victims of theft may decide to keep the issue within the campus community by seeking a decision through the university judicial system, like Cullen. But a newspaper staff’s options don’t stop there.

Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, said any state criminal law should be sufficient for prosecution.

“I think these prosecutions should be brought under criminal statutes as would any other theft,” Policinski said. “It’s a very First Amendment friendly approach because it’s not asking for any special treatment for a campus newspaper or any other newspaper. It simply says [if] you steal something that doesn’t belong to you, you commit a crime.”

Three states, Maryland, Colorado and California, have gone beyond the generic theft statutes by passing specific newspaper theft laws. In Maryland, anyone successfully prosecuted under the newspaper theft statute can receive a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail. In Colorado, a newspaper thief can receive up to $5,000 in fines if 500 or more newspapers were taken. Colorado’s law also explicitly refers to the student press. In California, a first violation can result in a $250 fine. A subsequent violation can result in a $500 fine and 10 days in jail or up to 40 hours of community service.

Policinski said he has seen polar opposites as far as university responses to newspaper theft. He’s seen a great many universities that have adopted policies within student handbooks that specifically say theft is criminal conduct.

“But you still have a few campuses where the attitude is that [newspaper theft] is a anything from a prank to a harmless activity,” he said.

A reoccurring stance taken by university police, administrators and suspects is that a free newspaper can’t be stolen. Although most student newspapers are free, there is money associated with them. Student activities fees help support many student newspapers, every ad in a newspaper has value to its advertisers and many student newspapers have paid staffers editing and writing the content that goes into each paper.

“I think Americans are just used to seeing price tags,” said Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney with the Student Press Law Center. “There’s this conception that it’s just a freebie. It’s important that [newspapers] educate folks that the only reason they’re putting them out for free is because they’re prepaid for and that’s the cheapest way to do it.”

Policinski said when a student newspaper is stolen it’s an act that dismisses the value of the student press.

“I think it’s not only saying that the product has no value—that it’s a tangible product—they’re saying that the student newspaper itself has no value.”

Newspaper theft is also a very ineffective way of preventing content from reaching readers. Policinski said a combination of a growing aggressive attitude from publishers and editors, the web and national groups like the SPLC and Society of Professional Journalists who support journalism, easily transforms what was a local story to a national story.

“Because student audiences come and go, I don’t think there’s a realization that the theft actually heightens the attention to the story,” Policinski said. “It might seem like common sense, but student populations renew basically every four or five years and I think there has to be this lesson learned over and over again that stealing editions of a newspaper will result in more publicity, not less.”

Student newspapers have taken their own proactive steps to dissuade theft. One of these steps is printing a policy in each issue stating that the first issue is free, but additional copies have an associated cost.

“Because we have the turnover in student population, it is a lesson that probably needs to be taught every couple years, hopefully by instruction not by prosecution,” Policinski said.

He recommends that universities include a policy or statement in handbooks for incoming freshmen as a preventative measure against newspaper theft.

The SPLC receives about 20 reports of newspaper theft each year, though the exact number is almost certainly higher. The center reported on seven thefts in the first three months of 2011 alone. And despite the increased publicity, successful prosecutions and newspaper theft laws, newspaper theft isn’t going to vanish overnight.

“I think the realization is now that this goes on much more than we might have thought,” Policinski said. “There’s a sense that it’s becoming an increasing problem and more attention needs to be devoted towards it, so it’s a bad time to steal editions if you’re a person contemplating it.”

By Kyle McDonald, SPLC staff writer

reports, Spring 2011