At American University, Newspaper Theft Goes Unpunished, and Leaves Questions About Commitment to Free Speech

By on August 6, 2010

A couple of weeks ago Adam wrote a blog post reviewing some of the most egregious acts of college press censorship from this past year. Among them was an instance of newspaper theft at American University (AU), sparked by the publication ofas is often the case with newspaper theftsa controversial student column. Some students responded to the column, published in the independent student newspaper The Eagle, by stealing and vandalizing hundreds of issues. Unfortunately, no studentsalthough it is now known that at least one of the perpetrators of the thefts was a student at AUappear to have been punished or investigated to date.

Though this incident has not been on The Torch aside from Adam’s brief mention, it has been on FIRE’s radar. FIRE recently stepped into the picture officially, writing to AU President Cornelius M. Kerwin with the question most people in the AU community either forgot to ask, figured had resolved itself, or (worst of all) never cared about in the first place: What about the rights of The Eagle?

The trouble began this past March 29 with the publication of a controversial column on "date rape" by student columnist Alex Knepper, which some in the AU community found deeply offensive. Response in the days and weeks afterward was part of a familiar cycle: angry letters to the editor and rebuttal columns from within the community, calls for sanction and punishment of the paper and its offending writer, and town meetings where hurt feelings were allowed room to vent and hopefully cool off. For the most part, then, what was seen by many as "bad" speech was fought with what they saw as "better" speech, and the gravitational pull of the marketplace of ideas was trusted to set everything back into the usual tense but healthy equilibrium.

On March 29, however, there was a glitch. The staff and readers of The Eagle were greeted with the sight of this outside their office and at several of their newsstands:

(That sign reads "NO ROOM FOR RAPE APOLOGISTS.")

editor-in-chief Jen Calantone estimated that more than 1,000 copies of the paper were stolen and vandalized in this waya sizable chunk of the publication’s 6,000-issue circulation. It was left to the staff to eventually regather them and replace them around campus.

To its credit, the AU administration never challenged The Eagle‘s editorial independence and its freedom to publish the column. The Eagle published on March 31 a letter from Provost Scott A. Bass and Vice President of Campus Life Gail Short Hanson, in which they noted that "AU … has a commitment to freedom of expression. Consistent with that commitment, individuals have the right to express their opinionseven opinions we find offensive." A later statement from President Kerwin echoed this sentiment, saying that "the First Amendment protects the right to share viewpoints, even when they may be hurtful or insensitive."

American University itself, meanwhile, makes clear in its policies that "Freedom of expression and dissent is protected by university policy for all members of the university community." This would include the right of aggrieved AU community members to respond to the "rape apologists" at The Eagle in any number of ways, many of which they didby writing letters, starting Facebook groups and other websites, having rallies and demonstrations, and starting public awareness campaigns. Not all of the dialogue sparked, of course, was the most constructive. The ad hoc site Take Back the Eagle broadcast comments such as this one:

It seems to me that the removal of Eagle papers from their distribution racks is not "vandalism." Rather, it’s direct action against a publication that has insisted on perpetuating hate speech and oppressive norms.

Freedom of speech, of course, includes the freedom to advocate many ideas, including the freedom to advocate on behalf of censorship. However, a line is crossed when those ideas are put into action and protected speech is actively suppressed by those who think it has no right to be expressed.

AU’s policies also take such a "heckler’s veto" into account, stating that "expressions of dissent should not … infringe upon the rights of other students, faculty, staff, or guests of the university community." That, unfortunately, is just what happened with the theft and vandalism of The Eagle, and we know now that at least one of the perpetrators was an AU student.

The Washington City Paper reported on May 6 AU student Chloe Rubenstein’s admission that she had taken part:

Rubenstein participated in the stunt, albeit halfheartedly. "I took some of the copies and moved them around," she says. "The article was insulting to every woman who has ever been sexually assaulted on campus. So it was an effective action in the sense that it got people to talk, but it was sort of an immature way to do it," she says.

The Eagle, upon reading this news item, alerted AU’s Public Safety department, which assured the paper that it would conduct an investigation. We don’t know whether or not this was a lot of hot air, because The Eagle never heard another word on the matterthe same outcome that resulted when AU’s Public Safety officers had been alerted to the thefts a few weeks earlier.

Finally, on July 14, FIRE wrote to President Kerwin, reminding him of AU’s obligations under its own promises of free expression to protect The Eagle from the kind of vigilante censorship that the paper had been subjected to. In a response to FIRE dated July 21, Vice President of Campus Life Gail Short Hanson assured FIRE that AU "do[es] not condone theft, vandalism or actions to curb free speech." Hanson’s letter continues:

American University promptly informed Public Safety about the dumping of the newspapers at The Eagle office as soon as it happened. Subsequently, we conducted a thorough investigation to determine if any of our university policies were violated and whether any person involved in the incident could be positively identified by video camera or eyewitnesses. No such evidence was found. The newspapers that were discovered in front of The Eagle office were restored to their distribution bins by The Eagle staff on the same day.

The University took appropriate steps in addressing this matter. No person was identified as taking responsibility for this act, nor did The Eagle seek to bring charges against anyone under AU’s Conduct Code. … The Eagle editors know that they may talk with me further about this incident if they have continuing concerns.

The Eagle tells us that it certainly will be discussing the matter further with Hanson, especially because her statement seems oblivious to the fact that a student was self-identified later as having taken part. Indeed, that student freely identified herself in print. The Eagle, I would imagine, would also reject the assertion that it had never sought to press charges in the matter. Their repeated inquiries should make clear that they are not willing to let the issue die. Lastly, pointing out that the newspapers were able to be restocked and redistributed is a little disingenuous. If someone steals my car and brings it back in more or less the same condition, does that mean it wasn’t really stolen?

As we wrote in our July 14 letter:

AU’s promises of free speech are betrayed if the university does not conduct a proper investigation of the theft and vandalism and make clear that such actions are not acceptable. By failing to investigate this incident and hold the perpetrators accountable, AU implicitly grants license to censor to the least tolerant members of the community, who apparently feel justified or even noble in suppressing the expression of ideas they dislike.

If it really respects the freedom of expression of The Eagle and all students, AU must make clear to the whole campus (not just to FIRE) that such thefts as that against The Eagle are not acceptable and that they will be investigated and appropriately punished. As things stand, there is little to stop students the next time a controversial article is published.

As a final note, Hanson’s letter asks us to post AU’s response to our website in the interest of fairness. Of course, we’re happy to oblige and, in doing so, put the ball in AU’s court to publicly reconcile the dissonance between what it says and what we’ve seen so far.

Schools: American University