Va. university won't press charges after newspapers stolen

Issue to be dealt with internally, despite editors' concerns

VIRGINIA — A disgruntled Christopher Newport University student allegedly resorted to newspaper theft, confronting and informing a staff member about the theft on her way to the racks and boasting about it on Facebook.

Emily Cole, editor in chief of the Captain’s Log at the university in Newport News, Va., recounted the Sept. 28 incident when student Ashley Starks confronted one of her staff members.

“She approached my news editor, Cory Mitchell, who also wrote the story, and berated her for the story, saying she was upset.” Cole said. “She told my news editor that she was on her way to several buildings to throw away newspapers.”

Starks reportedly objected to a story about police officer Timothy Nix, who was arrested in July on charges of fraud and forgery. Cole said Starks knew Nix through the police department where she worked as a police aide.

Starks then posted a status on her Facebook profile stating she had thrown away more than 700 copies of the Captain’s Log. Cole and her business manager determined the value of the papers to be about $300.

“I emailed the dean of students and chief of police, and I said I don’t want to ruin this student’s life with a felony conviction,” Cole said. “I just want compensation for papers she threw out and essentially stole.”

Starks could not be reached for comment.

On the dean and police’s advice, Cole filed a report through the campus police Oct. 4 and was told the case could be treated criminally or through the school’s judicial system in the Center for Honor Enrichment and Community Standards.

CNU police officer Brandon Austin informed Cole on Thursday that the investigation had been closed and moved to CHECS for further disciplinary action. The police crime log cites the incident as two misdemeanor crimes: larceny and destruction of property.

CNU police did not respond to a request for comment. A university spokesman confirmed the allegation but said the school does not comment on disciplinary matters.

Since the newspaper receives a majority of its funding through student activity fees, police told Cole that the victim of the theft is considered the university itself, rather than student editors. Austin told Cole the university declined to press criminal charges and asked that the issue be handled through the campus judicial system.

However, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the university should change its stance.

“The newspaper has been victimized and the victimization tangibly includes potential lost advertising revenues, but intangibly includes the ability to reach the audience,” he said. “That’s an injury to the journalists and not nearly as much to the school.”

LoMonte said the editors still have the ability to bring a civil lawsuit against Starks if they choose to do so.

Captain’s Log adviser Terry Lee said advertising revenue covers staff stipends and some travel expenses but printing and distribution costs are traceable back to student fees. That doesn’t rule out a formal apology, which he said is what the paper has been pushing from the beginning.

“I think it’s just a case where students are doing their jobs as journalists and feel like this is a case where they should be recognized for having been wronged,” Lee said.

With the case closed and moved to judicial affairs, Cole is unsure where that leaves the possibility for compensation — financial or otherwise.

“Right now I’m not really satisfied the fact that they just closed the case,” Cole said, adding she plans to talk with the dean and follow up with CHECS as her next move.

“I think people need to be aware of the fact that taking newspapers and throwing them away is a crime,” Cole said. “There’s always other options. You can always write a letter to the editor. She could have done something else instead of throwing away our hard work.”

Captain's Log, Christopher Newport University, news, Virginia

More Information