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The Campus Beat #4

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Reflections on student media

Among the myriad problems student journalists encounter, one problem worsens: newspaper theft. A growing number of student publications are being stolen, and alarmingly, this trend is not limited to specific educational institutions: small colleges, major state universities, Ivy League and other elite institutions, community colleges, and high schools are struggling with this dilemma. Even more troubling, in some instances the culprits are students, but in others, they are administrators, school staff, or individuals outside the college.


Recently, 1,000 copies of The Gatepost, the student newspaper at Framingham State College in Massachusetts, were stolen because a color photo of seven bare-bellied female students wearing short shorts while cheering the school’s female lacrosse team was placed on the front page. Apparently, the young ladies thought they looked “fat,” but that certainly doesn’t justify theft (and speaks volumes about their distorted perspectives of body image). At least one student has admitted to stealing approximately 130 newspapers.


An incident at the University of Kentucky in November, 2006 revealed that at least 4,500 copies of the Kentucky Kernel were stolen due to what the editor, Megan Boehnke, believed was a matter of censorship. The newspaper published a story, written by Boehnke, reporting that two students who died earlier that year “had blood alcohol levels more than twice the legal limit.” Several college constituencies believed the article was unnecessary and showed poor ethical judgment. 

  
In perhaps the strangest case, one administrator forced students to remove a portion of a newspaper that contained a controversial article. At Florida’s Hillsborough High School, Principal William Orr in the fall 2006 forced students, before distributing the newspaper, to physically cut out an article that reported low test scores among minority students. Such a request puts a new spin on “newspaper,” or in this case, “article theft”.


But these are not isolated incidents. According to the Student Press Law Center’s (SPLC) Executive Director, Mark Goodman, as of mid-November 2006, a total of 12 thefts had been reported to the SPLC during the first months of the fall 2006 semester; in contrast, a total of 19 were reported during the entire 2005-2006 academic year. The problem is so ubiquitous and serious the SPLC created the
Newspaper Theft Forum, a resource that includes a Newspaper Theft Checklist, which offers practical advice about what students and advisers can do if newspapers are stolen; a list of Successful Newspaper Theft Prosecutions; a list of policies a few schools have adopted to curtail such criminal acts; and an inventory of SPLC stories related to newspaper theft.


The problems here are complex, and everyone loses when newspapers are stolen. The most damaging problem is censorship. While the motivations behind such thefts are complicated, and while some instances can be attributed to pranks, many incidents listed on the SPLC’s Forum have been connected to controversial articles and subsequent censorship. Several thefts have occurred immediately after controversies about newspapers’ content had already surfaced. This behavior sends the wrong message to students and the campus community. The irony here is that a newspaper’s publication, and not its disappearance, is the best forum to voice disagreement.


Money is wasted as it costs precious dollars to print newspapers. Sadly, these dollars are often from student tuition or activity fees, which make the newspapers college property. Advertisers also lose commercial opportunities and may be discouraged to continue relationships with student newspapers, a decision that may impact the newspaper’s long-term budgetary stability. Perhaps most pernicious is the fact that thefts are occurring on campuses and are perceived as viable solutions to disagreement. Besides the incivility of such behavior, stealing newspapers is illegal, and if the culprits are caught, they could face felony charges depending on how many newspapers were stolen.


Another problem is one of perception. College newspapers are sometimes not considered “real” newspapers and not “college property” since they are usually free and produced by amateur journalists, so some small pockets of students, faculty, administrators, and staff treat them condescendingly. But nothing is ever free, especially on a college campus. If more college staff and students perceived the newspapers more seriously, perhaps they would realize how beneficial newspapers could be in representing all campus voices. Student newspapers are the solution and not the problem.


The legal implications surrounding newspaper theft are also unclear. Investigating these crimes can become slow and reprioritized, especially when campus security officials have large dockets of “more serious” crimes to investigate including drug trafficking, rape, alcohol consumption, and other campus-based crimes. Only three states currently have existing laws that make stealing newspapers illegal: California, Maryland, and Colorado. Each law more rigidly defines what constitutes newspaper theft and legislates stiffer penalties. For example, California’s law, passed in the fall 2006, “makes taking more than 25 copies of a free newspaper a crime when they are removed to sell or barter the papers, to recycle the papers for cash or other payment, to harm a competitor or to prevent others from reading the paper. The new law…carries a maximum $250 fine for the first offense ranging to $500 and jail time for repeat offenders.”


However, additional solutions exist. More states should enact laws similar to the aforementioned three states’. If students, advisers, and their colleagues petitioned state legislatures more vociferously, more politicians would listen because few want to rally against free speech and a free press or be perceived as anti-student. Institutions should conduct workshops informing students and staff about the role student newspapers play on campus and how everyone can get involved. Another alternative is for students to re-evaluate their distribution policies: charging modest amounts for newspapers, stacking smaller amounts of newspapers on newsstands, using newsstands that control the amount of newspapers taken, or identifying new ways of distributing newspapers to supplement the traditional ways, such as targeted mailing lists or distributing them through classrooms, are possibilities. Of course, the best alternative, one that makes much sense on various levels, is to abandon print models and go completely online, as this article from the First Amendment Center suggests. 


Whatever is causing this ugly trend probably speaks to some larger societal problem about civility, decency, and ethics, but fortunately, I know many students who still believe, “Thou shall not steal.” That seems common sense to most rational people. Hopefully, those students can spread the word further, and I know a good place to start: college newspapers.


Chris Justice is an Assistant Professor of English & Mass Communication at The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, United States.

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