Tennessee and Washington student newspapers both report thefts after covering controversies
UPDATE: A student admitted to stealing copies of Tennessee Tech University’s student newspaper, The Oracle in March 2018. He claims he did not do it in retaliation, but the newspaper investigated and found problems with the story he told campus police.
The police report says Robert Zennie told police he took the papers after they showed him a photo of him on surveillance footage. According to the report, Zennie “readily admitted” that he took numerous copies and explained they were needed to create a papier-mache music note for a high school band’s parade float. He provided a name and phone number for the band teacher.
The report also states Zennie said taking the newspapers had nothing to do with the front page story regarding the Student Government Association.
Vanessa Curry, the adviser for The Oracle, said the newspaper had been working to verify Zennie’s story. She said staff members spoke with the high school’s assistant band teacher, who did not confirm Zennie’s story, saying the band was not participating in the parade and there was no float.
The newspaper told the police about their findings, but the police had already turned the case over to the Dean of Students. Curry said she informed the dean of the holes in the story.
In less than two weeks, two student newspapers on opposite ends of the country have had hundreds of newspapers stolen from campus newsstands.
Even when newspapers are distributed for free, taking a large number from stands can still be a crime. Student Press Law Center Senior Legal Counsel Frank LoMonte, who has often provided advice to targeted news organizations, has in the past used an analogy to describe it: "If I go into the Salvation Army soup kitchen, and instead of taking one bowl of soup, I grab the entire kettle of soup and pour it down the sewer drain, I've definitely stolen property."
"It's certainly illegal to destroy property for the purposes of preventing other people from using of it. Even if the property was not being offered for sale," LoMonte said.
Campus police at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville are looking for two suspects who stole around 800 copies of the campus newspaper, The Oracle’s March 20 issue.
Marcelo Gonzalez, The Oracle’s managing editor, said he believes the theft was because of a front page story regarding two SGA senators who leaked a document to The Oracle in February.
“I don’t see any other reason why the papers would be taken,” Gonzalez said. “It definitely feels like retaliation.”
Vanessa Curry, the paper’s faculty adviser, said around 3,000 total copies of the March 20 issue were published. The 800 copies stolen are worth $400 to $500, she said.
Curry said she is setting up a meeting between the student editors and the campus police chief to check on the status of the investigation and to request screenshots from the surveillance video.
Curry agreed that she thinks the theft has to do with the front page story, calling the situation “suspicious.”
“There’s nothing else in that paper that’s controversial,” she said. “That’s not to say that I think the SGA itself is involved … but I think it has to do with that story.”
Across the country in Washington, students at Spokane Falls Community College's The Communicator found themselves in a similar situation.
On Mar. 12, former Editor-in-Chief Chandler Pedersen found newspapers damaged near an academic building. Pedersen reported the incident to campus security, but no action was taken.
Then, on Apr. 2, current Editor-in-Chief Magdalena Clough found 200 newspapers missing. She replaced all the papers, but found them missing, again, the next day. Clough filed a report with campus security on Apr. 3, who started an investigation. She also filed a police report on Apr. 5.
Pedersen and Clough recently co-published a front page article about sexual harassment allegations against acting university President Darren Pitcher, who resigned on Feb. 26. Pedersen, Clough, and the paper's adviser, Jason Nix, believe the controversy surrounding the Pitcher story is the reason papers are missing.
Four hundred issues have disappeared, which represents one third of The Communicator's total print order. While the paper is free for students, the loss amounts to $191, according to Nix.
"I was surprised and a little shocked," said Clough. "This is very personal to me because I'm the one who put this together." She added that the theft was a loss for everyone on campus, since fewer students would be able to read about the allegations concerning Pitcher.
Pedersen said he didn't expect students to steal the issue, but was "not very shocked at all."
"The story of the Derrin Pitcher issue was quite controversial on campus." Pedersen said. "People are going to be upset."
Clough and Pedersen have plans to counter the theft. They are considering placing another print order of the missing issue and physically handing them out to students who missed the story. The two also plan on releasing a podcast episode, along with managing editor Maddie Pearson, to explain their editorial decisions in publishing the Pitcher story. (Clough says she will also write an editorial to accompany the episode).
"Even though it's a shame that it has happened, as an educator who really loves teaching about the First Amendment, this is a great case study in how one reacts to cases of censorship," said Nix.
"I'm trying to stay positive and keep students positive about it. And I'm trying to make sure they learn as much as possible."
The SPLC provides tips on how to prevent and deal with newspaper theft and tracks newspaper thefts across the nation.
SPLC staff writer Gabriel Greschler can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318. He is on Twitter @ggreschler.
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