Rights of Student Newspaper Rejected by Police Following Theft at Christopher Newport University

By October 24, 2011

Peter Velz of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) has reported a troubling, though sadly familiar, First Amendment violation at Christopher Newport University (CNU), a public university in Virginia. A CNU student displeased with a story in the CNU paper The Captain’s Log, concerning the arrest of a former CNU police officer on charges of fraud and forgery, stole and disposed of more than 700 copies of the paper. The student admitted to doing this on Facebook, according to SPLC.

This is a depressing occurrence, and one of the most brash forms of vigilante censorship we see here at FIRE. Stealing newspapers not only is not protected by the First Amendment, but it also is generally defined as theft under criminal law, since all of those newspapers—even if they’re given out free of charge—cost money to print and rely on paid advertisements to cover costs. SPLC reports that The Captain’s Log estimated the theft’s financial harm to the paper to be about $300. (If you have any doubt whether stealing "free" newspapers is theft, try helping yourself to the entire box of of those T-shirts they blast out of air cannons at football games and see how they treat you then.)

Captain’s Log Editor in Chief Emily Cole reported the theft to CNU’s police department. Unfortunately, the CNU police not only failed to come to the paper’s aid, but mistakenly asserted that the paper wasn’t even considered the "victim" of the theft and had no right to claim damages. As SPLC writes:

On the dean and police’s advice, Cole filed a report through the campus police Oct. 4 and was told the case could be treated criminally or through the school’s judicial system in the Center for Honor Enrichment and Community Standards.

CNU police officer Brandon Austin informed Cole on Thursday that the investigation had been closed and moved to CHECS for further disciplinary action. The police crime log cites the incident as two misdemeanor crimes: larceny and destruction of property.

[...]

Since the newspaper receives a majority of its funding through student activity fees, police told Cole that the victim of the theft is considered the university itself, rather than student editors. Austin told Cole the university declined to press criminal charges and asked that the issue be handled through the campus judicial system.

On this faulty and dangerous logic employed by the CNU police, SPLC’s Frank LoMonte comments that "[t]he newspaper has been victimized and the victimization tangibly includes potential lost advertising revenues, but intangibly includes the ability to reach the audience … That’s an injury to the journalists and not nearly as much to the school." He is right.

Also, just think about it: Some universities have been known to distribute iPods to their incoming freshmen. If I were to steal one of those, is it really the college who is the victim?

The CNU police’s deferral to the CNU administration has dramatic implications for students’ rights that would seriously undermine their ability to pursue justice in cases where their rights are violated or their property is destroyed (or both). While the burden is on universities to make clear that they will not tolerate the censorship or vandalism of the work of student groups (something that FIRE reminds schools about frequently), the universities cannot say, essentially, "we’ll be the judge of whether or not your case is worth pursuing" when it comes to matters of police investigation. Independent student newspapers do not lose their independence simply because they have office space on campus or receive operational funding from the university. CNU’s bad argument looks even worse in cases when funding for a student organization comes from student fees rather than universities themselves. If The Captain’s Log were truly an arm of the university that speaks for the university, that would be different. But student organizations have their own rights on campus.

I would think most universities wouldn’t even want to claim that their student publications actually speak for them and are controlled by them, given the possibility of libel lawsuits and unpopular speech likely to embarrass the university. In contrast, universities do themselves a favor when they insist that the students speak only for themselves.

As Cole commented for the SPLC’s article:

"Right now I’m not really satisfied the fact that they just closed the case," Cole said, adding she plans to talk with the dean and follow up with CHECS as her next move.

"I think people need to be aware of the fact that taking newspapers and throwing them away is a crime," Cole said. "There’s always other options. You can always write a letter to the editor. She could have done something else instead of throwing away our hard work."

FIRE shares Cole’s dissatisfaction with CNU’s response. The status of any investigation remains unclear, and FIRE may well need to intervene to make sure that CNU recognizes the independence of this student publication. CNU must affirm the rights of The Captain’s Log and other student groups to protect the fruits of their labors—without interfering when they request help from the police.

Schools: Christopher Newport University