Florida Highway Patrol Officer Admits He Stole Copies of U. North Florida Student Paper

July 29, 2013

Thousands of copies of the UNF Spinnaker, the University of North Florida’s (UNF’s) student newspaper, were reported missing last month, and university police have identified one of the men responsible: Florida Highway Patrol officer and UNF graduate Steven Coppola. The issue Coppola confessed to removing from newsstands contained a story detailing the arrest of a friend of Coppola’s, Joshua Hott, who was charged with video voyeurism after allegedly filming a young man in a restroom. According to the Spinnaker, Coppola said he was worried about how the story might affect Hott’s younger brother, a student at UNF. According to Spinnaker reporter Connor Spielmaker, “UPD and the state attorney’s office concluded that taking the Spinnakers wasn’t a crime.” But Spinnaker editor-in-chief Jacob Harn argues that this is incorrect. Common sense should tell us that removing copies of newspapers from newsstands is theft—the Student Press Law Center reported that Harn “estimated the cost of the missing papers, including lost advertising revenue, to be $4,644.” Further, by making the newspaper unavailable to students because of the content of the issue, Coppola committed an act of censorship that is prohibited by the First Amendment. Depressingly, FIRE has reported on far too many similar incidents at colleges around the country, where public university administrators and other state actors have attempted to prevent important news stories from being made public. Coppola said he regrets the decision and, according to the Spinnaker, wants to “make things right” with Harn. But it is not clear that Coppola alone can remedy the situation. Harn shared with the Spinnaker his response to the decision by university police and the state attorney’s office not to investigate or punish Coppola: From how they handled this incident, I don’t feel safe. And I see that our right to free speech—as outlined in the Constitution, the First Amendment—I see that that’s not safe either. Harn told the Spinnaker that he is considering filing a lawsuit. He also would like to see Florida legislators explicitly protect journalists with a statute prohibiting newspaper theft, just as the state legislatures in Colorado and Maryland have done. FIRE will watch the situation for updates. In the meantime, student journalists can find resources to help protect their rights on FIRE’s website and the Student Press Law Center’s website.

Schools:  University of North Florida