Stealing the news

By November 15, 2006

At least 4,500 copies of the student newspaper at the University of Kentucky were reported stolen Monday, the same day a controversial story appeared breaking news of toxicology reports that revealed two students who died earlier this semester had blood alcohol levels more than twice the legal limit.

The incident was the latest in what has been an uptick in student newspaper thefts this fall – so far this academic year, 12 different cases have been reported to the Student Press Law Center, compared to a total of 19 thefts reported throughout the entire 2005-6 school year, according to the center’s executive director, Mark Goodman. Among the incidents reported to the center so far this fall include the alleged theft of papers featuring homo-erotic images at the University of Southern Indiana and a case at Stetson University in Florida that resulted in a requirement that a sorority pay $1,200 in restitution after the removal of newspapers detailing mold problems in the sorority house, according to local media reports.

“I believe that there is this pernicious misunderstanding among students and sometimes even administrators and faculty that they have a right not to be offended,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “In this case, it seems like this might be a more personal fight than we often see. In most cases, it’s more political or ‘Yeah, I don’t like you criticizing me’ or — the goofiest one I’ve seen in some time — ‘Yeah, please don’t tell anyone we have mold.’”

At the University of Kentucky, Monday’s suspected thefts occurred after the student newspaper editor, also the writer of the controversial piece about the toxicology data, received about 15 phone calls, plus e-mails and text messages, from friends and family of the deceased students asking her not to run the story. Megan Boehnke, editor of the 17,000-circulation Kentucky Kernel, reported in her Monday story toxicology data from three deaths that occurred this fall: that of a 20-year-old incoming student who fell off a cliff in the Red River Gorge area two days before classes started, and those of a 25-year-old student who drowned along with a recent graduate after floodwaters swept them through an underground sewage system September 23. All involved were legally drunk, the paper reported.

Boehnke said it’s her “best guess” that the papers were stolen as a result of her story.

“I absolutely think this was a very important article to run,” Boehnke said. “This has been an ongoing issue for five, six years where students have been dying in alcohol-related incidents. This is the third year in a row where students have died in an underage incident within the first week of school.”

“This is a continuing pattern, and unless this is talked about, it’s not going to go away. I think it’s important that this information be put out there so people are talking about it.”

“It is disappointing that someone would do this — that they would try to take this information away from people.”

But some who were angry with Boehnke’s story seemed to see the suspected thefts as a less serious offense than the article, which they argued caused undue pain to the family and friends of the students and alumna who died.

“What else would you expect? When you write and publish a story that is not only going to hurt the family of the students but their friends as well,” a commenter wrote on a message board on the Kentucky Kernel’s Web site.

“The alleged theft of the Kentucky Kernel papers did far less damage, in my opinion, than the tasteless article by Megan Boehnke in the Kentucky Kernel. The Kernel made a serious lapse in ethical journalism,” another commenter wrote.

Administrators however joined in condemning the alleged theft, and pledged that if students are found responsible after a university police-led investigation, they will face both legal charges and university discipline. “Obviously the administration would never condone the theft of newspapers as an institution of higher education,” said Patricia Terrell, vice president for student affairs at UK. “If people do not agree with something that’s in the student newspaper, they can exercise their right to send a letter to the editor or to publish a guest editorial.”

Joe Monroe, interim chief of the University of Kentucky Police, said the investigation is ongoing. Since the Kentucky Kernel has a disclaimer indicating that while the first copy is free, any subsequent copies cost 25 cents each – a disclaimer meant to assign a monetary value in the event of theft, said Chris Poore, the student publication advisor at UK – police are investigating the allegations as a possible case of felony theft. The combined value of the missing papers is worth more than the $300 minimumnecessary for felony classification in Kentucky, Monroe said.

While police have identified some “strong leads,” Monroe said he could not disclose them. However, Monroe did confirm a report from Poore that police received a tip that a woman observed removing newspapers told a witness she was doing so in protest of Boehnke’s story.

The Student Press Law Center’s Goodman said he believes the increase in newspaper thefts seen so far this year is likely a result of random chance, but added that lax responses from administrators and local law enforcement that have occurred in the past can contribute to fueling the trend. Three states – California, Maryland and Colorado – have laws on the books specifically prohibiting newspaper theft, and the practice can typically be prosecuted under existing theft statutes in other states, Goodman said.

Even free papers are protected, he added: “The comparison that I sometimes make is, ‘This is no different than if you went into your local fast food restaurant and stole every straw and every napkin.’ There’s no question that they could pursue you, even though they’re not selling those items.”

“I think a problem we have seen occur is that campus officials and law officials have treated newspaper theft as a prank and not as a crime.”

Schools: University of Kentucky