There is an old adage that when you don’t have the law on your side you argue the facts, and that when you don’t have the facts on your side you argue the law. What if you have neither on your side? You end up with something like Detective Lisa Kidwell’s official report filed after the theft of The Minuteman at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Indeed, the report is riddled with distortions, inaccuracies, and untruths so evident that one wonders how someone who was there could have composed it.
Torch readers may remember the theft of The Minuteman as part of a spate of FIRE cases at UMass this spring. In this particular case, UMass student Ed Cutting noticed another student standing with one foot on a stack of newly released issues of The Minuteman, a paper published by a conservative student group, The Silent Majority. The student standing on the papers was Vanessa Snow, director of the UMass group Student Bridges, whose financial practices were ruthlessly criticized in The Minuteman‘s March/April issue. The paper did not spare Snow from its fire, comparing the group’s annual budget to what they called her “bloated backside.” Offended by the paper’s depiction of her, Snow had decided to prevent the issue from distribution. When he saw Snow standing on a stack of papers, Cutting notified the UMass Police Department, and shortly afterwards Detective Kidwell arrived on the scene. The whole of this encounter, including the brazen act of forcibly taking the papers, was recorded on video, a fact Torch readers will doubly appreciate once they have read Kidwell’s report.
In her statement, Kidwell states that
[Snow] stated she did not want them out based on the statement written in the paper about her. SNOW then showed me page 17 of the Minuteman. There is a reference to SNOW and her “bloated backside”. SNOW asked what could be done. I informed her that it was not a criminal matter but rather a civil matter of deformation [sic] of character or liable [sic]. SNOW was further advised to speak with the DOS office for further direction as to the publication.
On this much Kidwell is right, leaving aside the glaring spelling errors. She was right that defamation of character and libel are, with few exceptions, civil and not criminal matters. And fortunately for The Minuteman and every other publication in America, calling negative attention to someone’s weight doesn’t come close to being either. In any event, the issue at hand was theft, not libel or defamation, and it is when we get further into this matter that the most appalling inaccuracies emerge:
I asked SNOW to return the papers to CUTTING. SNOW did return the majority of the papers to CUTTING. SNOW kept approximately 20 papers for herself and to give to friends. This was discussed and agreed upon by both CUTTING and SNOW.
This is so far from the truth that it’s hard to know where to start. How about the fact that the video clearly shows Snow and a couple of other students forcibly removing the entire stack of issues from Cutting’s hands shortly after returning them to him, leaving him with only one copy? Kidwell’s story directly conflicts with the video, and there is no way around that fact. Furthermore, it’s impossible to believe that there was some sort of misunderstanding. For instance, as she removes the papers from Cutting’s hands, you clearly hear Snow state that “[she’d] like to distribute some as well.” Yet when Kidwell arrived on the scene, Snow was standing on the stack of papers preventing their distribution. It simply is not credible that Kidwell, who is after all a detective—a detective, for crying out loud!—could possibly believe that Snow was making a good-faith offer to distribute a paper that mocks her weight on page 17. While this seems to have escaped the Sherlock Holmes of Amherst, Massachusetts, the travesty didn’t go unnoticed by some of the other students there, who loudly expressed amazement that they were getting this whole encounter on film. Nor was it lost on Cutting, who said of the video, “That’s going to FIRE. I want it.”
So much for the facts. But what about the law? Surely Kidwell knows that theft of newspapers, even free ones, is a crime, yes? Apparently, no.
I informed CUTTING that once the papers were placed in the public for public consumption that it was not stealing.
Please give me a break. It is understandable that every once in a while we have to remind students that stealing newspapers is not only a pernicious form of censorship, but also a crime. That an officer of the law on a campus police force does not grasp this point is simply inexcusable. If you don’t believe me, the next time you pass a newspaper bin, try putting in 25 cents and taking all the papers out of it in plain view of a policeman, and see what happens. To help protect themselves from this kind of theft, many student papers state on their front pages that only the first issue is free and that people must pay for additional copies. The Minuteman uses this safeguard, as Cutting showed Kidwell:
CUTTING pointed out the statement at the top of the paper (First copy, free; each additional copy, $3.00) I asked who collected the money or where the money is placed after one copy. CUTTING stated that there was no collecting of money but that the statement was placed on the paper to discourage people from taking multiple copies.
Here, the only possible interpretation is that Kidwell is simply looking for an excuse to allow Snow and her allies to steal as many papers as possible. Neither The Minuteman nor any other college newspaper is required to set up a complicated and expensive infrastructure of coin-operated machines if it wishes to avoid being at the mercy of some aggrieved person who decides to steal tens, hundreds, or even thousands of dollars’ worth of issues of the paper. The notice is—as Cutting said—primarily there to remind students (as well as administrators, who also frequently misunderstand the issue) that even free publications have a monetary value. Even if Kidwell’s account of her encounter with Snow and Cutting had been accurate, not only was she dramatically wrong about the law but also her interpretation seriously risks the rights of the students on the campus she (presumably) is sworn to defend.