Remember the lesson Popehat gave Peace College on the "Streisand Effect" a couple of weeks ago? If not, here’s a quick recap: An attorney hired by the college tried to intimidate outside critics of the college into silence by sending them an ominous letter asking them to "desist" from their attacks on the university and its president. Popehat smartly pointed out that by trying to shut up its critics, the college had inadvertently ensured that the critics’ arguments reached a far, far wider audience. (This phenomenon came to be known as the Streisand Effect, in short, after singer Barbra Streisand’s attempt to have an aerial photo of her beachfront home removed from a government database not only failed, but made an internet sensation of the photo in question, ensuring it was seen by millions. More here.)
In other words, most attempts at censorship are profoundly counterproductive. And this same basic principle—that trying to suppress unflattering information tends to have the effect of amplifying its reach—applies to those who steal college newspapers from the racks as well.
The Student Press Law Center reports that this week’s case in point comes from Georgia State University, where roughly 250 issues of the student newspaper The Signal disappeared recently. The disappearance followed the publication, SPLC writes, of a "a series of stories regarding alleged sorority hazing" specifically involving the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority. SPLC reports:
Chris Shattuck, The Signal news editor, said he found a large rack completely empty when he went to restock the papers in a high-traffic classroom building March 13. A maintenance worker told him a group of girls had just come through and thrown the papers into a nearby recycling bin.
Stealing newspapers containing stories you’d rather the public didn’t read is, of course, comically counterproductive, since people can go and read the same exact stories on the paper’s website. And once you factor in the Streisand Effect, you can bet people are going to go to the paper’s website in ever greater numbers to see what all the fuss was about. How much did yanking these newspapers to prevent this story from reaching the public not work—if, indeed, the thefts were connected to the Zeta Tau Alpha hazing story? Well, I’m reading all about it all the way up here in Philadelphia, nearly 800 miles away. That’s how much it didn’t work.
Such faulty logic aside, newspaper theft causes real monetary damage to publishers, and is frequently prosecuted under the law, even when the newspapers are given away (as nearly all college newspapers are) free of charge. As SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte points out, "The fact that there’s not a price tag on the newspaper does not mean you can take hundreds without consequences."
This is a point SPLC and FIRE make countless times per year. Unfortunately, as this latest incident at Georgia State shows, it’s one that bears repeating.