The always-vigilant Student Press Law Center reports that students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles confessed to stealing and destroying approximately 4,000 copies of the student newspaper. The theft was apparently related to an article that the paper ran about a sorority hazing incident in which the paper misidentified the sorority president who was involved in the incident.
The phenomenon of newspaper thefts should terrify anyone who is concerned about the future of liberty on campus and in the larger society. I devoted the concluding section of my October 2003 Senate testimony to the issue:
One chilling example of how poorly free speech is understood and how little it is respected in higher education today is the phenomenon of newspaper thefts. For over a decade in at least five dozen documented instances, students have stolen and destroyed tens of thousands of copies of student-run newspapers on colleges and universities across the country in an effort to silence viewpoints with which they disagree. In some cases these newspapers were thrown out, and—in at least a half dozen cases—they were burned. I hope I do not need to remind you of the fate of societies of the previous century when they began burning books. In fact, this form of mob censorship has become so commonplace that this month the Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance making newspaper theft illegal. This was in part a response to an incident involving Berkeley’s current mayor, Tom Bates, who stole 1,000 copies of a student newspaper after it endorsed his opponent in the mayoral race. With those in power teaching the current generation these kinds of lessons about free speech, how can we expect them to defend their own basic rights when they are threatened? It would truly be a terrible thing to have a whole generation of students so unfamiliar with their basic liberties that they would not even know if they lost them.
In my career I have seen some progress is the fight against this form of grassroots censorship. At least in the recent case at Yale and the 2002 case at UC Berkeley the administration condemned the theft of student newspapers. As readers of The Shadow University know, it was not so long ago that administrators turned a blind eye to, or even defended, newspaper thefts (the 1992 story of the student attack on the U Mass Amherst newspaper the Collegian is one of the most dramatic examples). However, allegations of complicity in newspaper thefts still haunt some notable administrators, including University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Jonathan Curtis. Curtis, you may remember, was involved in that university’s attempt to derecognize Christian groups for “discriminating” against non-Christians. As columnist Mike Adams pointed out, Curtis himself may have been involved in a 1996 newspaper theft. With illiberal administrators like these on campus payrolls, how can we really expect things to improve?