The Student Press Law Center reports that on August 28, more than 1,000 copies of The Auburn Plainsman were stolen, costing Auburn University’s student newspaper nearly $800. The newspapers disappeared from seven locations throughout Auburn’s campus. So far no one has claimed responsibility for the theft, but the paper’s editors believe that one of its stories may have been the cause.
The Plainsman’s potentially controversial stories included an editorial criticizing Auburn’s Student Government Association, a story on a council member who blamed his election loss on voter fraud, and the content of the regular Crime Reports feature, which often features student infractions.
Unfortunately, campus newspaper theft is not uncommon. In 2010, Members of Texas A&M University’s football team confiscated copies of the student newspaper (and were congratulated by their coach for doing so) in response to a story on drug use by team members. At Christopher Newport University (CNU) in Virginia, a student who was displeased with a story covering the arrest of a former campus police officer in CNU’s The Captain’s Log disposed of over 700 newspapers in 2011.
Students are not the only ones who engage in this form of censorship. At Oregon State University (OSU), administrators stopped the distribution of newspapers from the school’s conservative paper, The Liberty, by confiscating and trashing its newspaper bins. However, OSU learned a lesson about censorship when it was forced to pay $101,000 to settle the case this year.
Newspaper theft is one of the most egregious forms of censorship on campus. Students and administrators do not have have the right to censor a newspaper simply because they are offended by its content. If students dislike the content of a newspaper or disagree with the opinions expressed in it, they should express that by writing a letter to the editor or by using some other platform to share their countervailing view, instead of illegally stealing the newspaper.
It’s important to recognize that just because a newspaper like the Plainsman is distributed free of charge does not make its theft any less of a theft. As the Student Press Law Center explains:
While most college newspapers are distributed without charge (most student media have determined it would actually cost more to collect money at the point of distribution than it is worth), they are certainly not “free.” Publishing a student newspaper is an expensive undertaking; student media lose thousands of dollars each year as a result of newspaper theft. Like other types of theft, newspaper thieves deprive rightful owners of their valuable property. Among other expenses, student news organizations pay editorial staff to produce the newspaper, advertising staff to sell ads, printers to print it and circulation staff to distribute the finished product. At many schools, students are charged a student activity fee that entitles them to a “prepaid subscription” to their student media. In almost all cases businesses and others have paid to have their advertisements published — money they certainly would not pay if they knew their ad would never be read.
Theft of student newspapers is a crime, and the Plainsman’s editors recognize it as such in the statement they published in response to the theft:
Any theft of papers in an attempt to censor content will be followed up by any means necessary, including criminal prosecution, civil action for restitution of lost funds and campus disciplinary action. We value our First Amendment right to disseminate information to the public through our products, and we hope those responsible for infringing upon those rights will come forward and do the right thing.
FIRE supports the editors’ statement and hopes that freedom of the press will be protected at Auburn University.