In Pursuing Theft of Towson Newspapers, State’s Attorney Chooses Expediency Over the Law

By on March 31, 2011

I wrote here last month about the theft of 2,000 to 3,000 issues of the Towson University campus newspaper The Towerlight. I wrote then, as did The Baltimore Sun on March 2, that The Towerlight intended to press charges against the perpetrators of the thefts, if they were caught, under the Maryland Newspaper Theft Statute. It appeared progress was being made in the investigation. As the Sun wrote:

University spokeswoman Carol Dunsworth said that campus police identified suspects in the case and that those suspects have been referred to the office of student conduct for possible punishment.

But that’s not good enough for Gross, the Towerlight‘s editor in chief. Though the newspaper is free, he wants the thieves to face misdemeanor charges under a Maryland law that prevents a person from seizing "unauthorized control over newspapers with the intent to prevent other individuals from reading the newspapers."

My hope was that brighter news for The Towerlight was on the horizon, but assistant state’s attorney John Cox saw things differentlydeciding that the inconvenience suffered by the Towson community (not to mention the paper and its advertisers) didn’t merit prosecution. As the Sun wrote in a blistering editorial on March 7:

But a funny thing happened on the way to District Court: The state’s attorney’s office declined to prosecute the unnamed suspects. Instead, the case was referred to the school’s own internal judicial system – which means, of course, that the culprits are Towson students.

Why ignore the crime? John Cox, the assistant state’s attorney who reviewed the case, said his reasoning was twofold. First, he believed the school’s disciplinary procedures would be an adequate substitute, and the process would spare the students from having a misdemeanor criminal conviction on their records.

This is faulty enough (although such decisions between universities and law enforcement are fairly frequent), but Cox’s next justification is far worse, and particularly galling given his position:

But second, he said he did not believe he could convict the perpetrators because the law requires that he prove that they intended to "prevent other individuals from reading the newspapers." He noted that Towson students were still able to access the newspaper online despite the theft of 20 percent to 30 percent of its printed copies.

The Sun continues, saying that "[t]he state’s attorney’s office is flat-out wrong – and appears to be advocating for the wrong Towson students." The Sun is right.

That Cox would choose to ignore Maryland’s law against thefts of newspapers because Towson studentsin his judgmenthad ample alternative means with which to view the newspaper’s contents is misguided and depressing, and not prosecuting the case for fear of being unable to prove the motive of the perpetrators smacks of laziness. At minimum, any reasonable person would expect that if a person or group of persons steals thousands of issues of a printed publication, they would be motivated to do so by the content of the publication. This is indeed, in FIRE’s experience, overwhelmingly the case with newspaper thefts. What’s more, the evidence seems ample that this was the intent of the students who stole the papers. As The Towelight wrote in an appeal letter to Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger:

According to the police, video surveillance tapes clearly showed multiple perpetrators going from building to building and committing the act. Police told us they were able to identify and interview those individuals to determine that the act was not random or a prank, but was instead an attempt to remove a particular issue of our publication, because of a specific story that proved controversial in the issue. Punishing such an act is clearly the intended purpose of the Maryland Newspaper Theft Statute.

And while Cox apparently judged that The Towerlight would get a close enough approximation of justice by allowing Towson’s judiciary to do the work, the newspaper points out that it is not just another student but is in fact an independent corporation.

It has also been reported that one factor in Mr. Cox’s decision was his judgment that Towson University’s judicial affairs process would be sufficient to handle this offense. First, we must point out that we are not part of Towson University. We are a separate corporation, paying rent for office space on campus, and we expect a crime against us to be handled appropriately in the courts. In the campus judicial affairs process, the victim has no representation, no access to the testimony or evidence, and is not informed of the names of the suspects or the outcome of the case. So we do not even know that the perpetrators ever did face justice in the campus system. By refusing to prosecute, Mr. Cox has left us in the dark and doubled our sense of violation and loss.  

FIRE joins The Towerlight in urging the State’s Attorney’s office to reconsider the case in light of what appears to be solid evidence supporting the newspaper’s victimization. If it fails to do so, it will send a signal to Towson students: the next time you want to silence the message of a campus publication, just be sure not to steal more than 30 percent or so of the total run. Such minor inconveniences, apparently, aren’t worth Maryland’s time. 

Schools: Towson University