A review of newspaper theft and vandalism at colleges across the country
In the months since the 2016-17 school year began, a number of college newspapers have struggled with the theft or vandalism of their campus publications.
In September, Butler University’s student newspaper, the Butler Collegian, published a front-page article about the university’s gender-inclusive housing policy, accompanied by a graphic depicting the symbols for the male and female genders. According to an article by the Collegian, individuals then took papers from the campus racks and drew the transgender symbol in the design writing, “TRANSformBU” and “We fixed it for you,” on some of the issues.
In an article following the issue’s publication, the Collegian wrote a press release stating, “In no way was the article’s purpose to cause any pain or harm to anyone. We recognize – and embrace – the right to free speech.”
But, the Collegian wrote, defacing property is not free speech and the damage done to the copies of the Collegian was financially significant, costing around $700 to print the approximately 850 copies that were affected.
The Collegian reported that it pulled the damaged issues with intent to redistribute the remaining unaffected copies on campus the next day. The paper’s editor in chief, Katie Goodrich, said there are still some issues the staff is working on and declined to comment about the incident at this time.
On numerous occasions, Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, saw copies of its newspaper, the Southwestern College Sun, and its magazine, El Sol, defaced with racist messages and calls to vote for now-president-elect Donald Trump.
In June, the paper reported, several issues of The Sun were vandalized when someone wrote “Trump 2016” across the face of Mona Dibas, a Muslim woman photographed in a hijab. The next month, The Sun reported, nearly $3,000 worth of copies of El Sol Magazine with Dibas’ photo on the cover were vandalized or stolen from distribution racks at businesses across from Southwestern’s campus.
Most recently, The Sun reported, a man unaffiliated with the university wrote “F*ck Blacks” across an October issue of the paper depicting an African-American man demonstrating in El Cajon after the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant.
Though local law enforcement determined there was no crime in defacing the paper, Southwestern’s interim president Robert Deegan sent a campus-wide email condemning the vandalism.
“This action was bold and disturbing and one that we condemn,” wrote Deegan. “This behavior has no place here and reminds us that we all must continue to remain vigilant against any form of hate speech.”
Southwestern College Police Chief Michael Cash called the incident regrettable – but not criminal.
“It was later determined that no crime had occurred and the issue was more a First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression,” Cash said in a report by The Sun.
While there was no reportable crime, The Sun reported that copies of El Sol were pulled from distribution areas during much of the summer to deflect any more potential theft or vandalism. And though the newspaper reports that the publication has been successfully distributed this fall, the incidents represent the threat to freedom of speech and freedom of the press student publications increasingly face.
“The Sun and El Sol will continue to cover our diverse community – all of it – and will not give into threats, vandalism and other actions against the publications,” Max Branscomb, The Sun’s adviser and a journalism professor at Southwestern, said. “We are, however, hunkering down. It may be a tough next four years.”
In other instances of vandalism, student publications have taken to the opinion pages to voice their concerns about censorship and the effects such acts have on their audiences.
Nearly 2,500 miles away, the University of Tampa’s student newspaper, The Minaret, reported more than $1,300 worth of newspapers were thrown out after it published a front-page story in October about sexual assault in Greek Life at the University of South Florida.
In an editorial published on The Minaret’s website that same day, editors Tess Sheets, Bianca Lopez and Selene San Felice wrote that around 1:10 p.m., three male students approached a table where Minaret staff members were handing out papers and took one.
The editorial goes on to say that the students began walking away when one scoffed at the front page story, mentioning the fraternity to which the USF student accused of sexual assault belonged.
The authors wrote the student then slapped the newspaper out of his friend’s hand and onto the ground before another said, “We need to throw these all away.” One of the students then reportedly offered The Minaret $2 for the rest of their newspapers and, after staff declined, said he planned on throwing the papers away.
Minaret staff began noticing that newly replenished stacks of papers had been emptied from their stands in multiple buildings on campus. Sheets, Lopez and San Felice also wrote that the university’s Campus Safety had captured security camera footage of two males taking entire stacks of papers from the floor of one building.
“It was very clear that the group of students didn't want the article out because they wanted to protect the USF student on the cover,” San Felice said in an interview. “They didn't want the Pi Kapp (fraternity) name to look bad even if it was at another school.”
San Felice said she was angry when she first called campus safety, but went to class assuming she could take care of the situation afterward. But San Felice ended up having to leave class early in order to talk to the university and start crafting the editorial response.
“I was heartbroken at the fact that these guys A) decided rape was less important than a fraternity looking good, and B) had no respect for the fact that Tess and Bianca and I build that paper with our bare hands every week,” she said. “Students work so hard to write, edit, take photos, design … people think that newspapers grow on trees already printed and folded and everything. Not many people appreciate the work that goes into making each Minaret and the fact that we're doing it for them.”
San Felice said she thought the editorial played a role in one of the students caught on camera eventually coming forward, but said the lack of response from the university and the fraternity mentioned in the article was disheartening.
The Tampa chapter of Pi Kappa Phi gave no official response. Although the university’s campus safety director was quoted expressing “great confidence” that the perpetrators would be identified and caught within a day, the department never arrested or charged anyone.
When Minaret staff talked to the university’s office for Greek Life to communicate the urgency of the situation, San Felice said she felt that the paper’s concerns were a matter the organization did not want to broach.
While Minaret staff — who are primarily female — condemned the acts against the newspaper as a form of censorship, Sheets, Lopez and San Felice said the vandalism was about more than newspapers.
“Instead of using this as an opportunity to speak out against sexual assault and distance UT’s Pi Kappa Phi chapter from the incident, these students made a statement that symbolically endorsed an alleged rape,” they wrote. “These students would rather trash their own campus paper — to protect someone accused of raping an unconscious minor — than stand in solidarity with the men and women on their own campus.”
Last month, New York’s St. John’s University saw similar acts of vandalism and destruction to its newspapers published the day after the 2016 election.
According to Suzanne Ciechalski, The Torch's editor in chief, newspaper staff had found copies of its papers torn up on campus, along with stacks of the papers turned to hide the front page. Ciechalski said editors received texts about stacks being flipped over in a central campus building that acts as a common student hang-out between classes. One editor, she said, saw students throw papers in the trash and saw a few papers tossed over a staircase in an on-campus building.
The organization had also been cursed on social media, including in a Snapchat photo that depicted the paper’s front page with the caption “suck a d*ck @ Torch (the on campus paper).”
“As long as I've been at St. John's, I've never seen papers vandalized like this,” Ciechalski said. “Students have disagreed with us, but as far as I know, have never vandalized the newspaper in the time that I've been a student here.”
But Ciechalski said the paper’s staff also received encouragement from students, faculty and administration in support of their work.
“We're assuming that people chose to vandalize the papers out of anger and frustration due to the results of the election,” Ciechalski said. “I don't think students were necessarily attacking The Torch, rather, they were angered by the results and took it out on our papers.”
Ciechalski said the vandalism was frustrating because editors had been up until 5 a.m. covering the results of the election in order to print information as up-to-date as possible before distribution.
“I feel that our front page was objective and I think it was properly executed given the results of the election. Our editorial staff firmly stands by our decision for the front page,” she said.
The following week, The Torch published an editorial titled, “An open letter to the university community from your campus newspaper,” addressing the destruction of its post-election newspapers.
In the editorial, Torch editors wrote, “Leading up to the election, our editorial board planned several articles, designs and possible front pages depending on the outcome. While those ideas constantly changed, one thing remained certain: the front page would feature the winner of the race regardless of who it was.”
The editorial went on to reaffirm the newspaper’s dedication to fair and accurate journalism, and to condemn the destruction of its newspapers as a form of censorship.
“It’s hard to not exercise our passions and voice our beliefs – simply because before we’re journalists, we’re human beings. But we have to remain objective if we want to be considered a true source of news for our fellow students,” the editorial states. “Tearing up newspapers is a form of censorship, and we will not stand for it. And that isn’t because we’re bothered by the fact that our work is being destroyed by our peers, it’s because we firmly believe that you, our readers, have a right to unbiased news.”
Ciechalski, who helped write the editorial, touted the importance of free speech and the contribution of her peers’ voices to the paper’s opinion section.
“Our job as student journalists is to report as fairly and objectively as possible because that's what our students, our faculty, our administration, and the rest of our readers deserve,” she said. “And we made it clear in the editorial that we want to hear from students, whether that's through an email, a letter to the editor, or by stopping into the office to speak with us.”
While Ciechalski said the editorial was received well by students and faculty, she believes the incident provided newspaper editors with an important insight into producing future papers.
“The biggest lesson we learned from this is that students care and that they are definitely reading, so, if anything, it just gave us more incentive to continue reporting as we have.”
In addition to vandalism, other publications have initiated public safety investigations after copies of their newspapers were stolen.
Both Quinnipiac University and Lindenwood University’s student newspapers are investigating the theft of hundreds of newspapers that were taken in November.
Representatives from neither student publication could be reached by press time, but a Nov. 17 article published by The Quinnipiac Chronicle states, “Newspaper theft is a crime and anyone who violates the single copy rule may be subject to civil and criminal prosecution and/or subject to university discipline.”
Apart from the lost opportunity to reach readers, the theft of newspapers also imposes a significant financial burden to the paper’s creators – a burden that costs student media thousands of dollars nationally each year. While most college newspapers are distributed free of charge, creating and distributing the publication involves significant money and labor that is wasted when papers are damaged or destroyed.
Many student news organizations pay editorial staff to produce the newspaper, advertising staff to sell ads, printers to print the product and circulation staff to distribute the paper each time it’s published. While many schools charge students a student activity fee that goes toward funding the newspaper and giving them, in turn, a “prepaid subscription,” newspapers independent of their universities rely on revenue from ad sales to keep their publications afloat.
As explained in the SPLC’s newspaper theft guide: “Newspaper theft presents a serious threat to the viability of the student press community; letting the thieves get away with it threatens the viability of a free press itself.”
If you or your publication have experienced newspaper theft or vandalism, contact the SPLC at (202) 785-5450 and visit our resource page preventing and responding to newspaper threats.
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