Newspaper Thefts: A Pernicious Form of Mob Censorship

January 30, 2013

As part of Free Press Week, we have already taken a look on The Torch at universities’ use of the threat of denial of funding to censor student journalists. Today, we look at another, and perhaps even more distressing, common issue that student newspapers and media outlets face: students silencing their fellow students by engaging in newspaper theft.

A problem that we have to write about all too often here at FIRE, newspaper theft is a particularly pernicious form of brute censorship on campus. It’s mob censorship at its finest (or, more accurately, its coarsest), and it is yet another manifestation of college students having “unlearned liberty” over the years. While we shouldn’t have to point this out, disagreeing with the viewpoint of a newspaper article, being offended by a student editorial, or feeling discomfort at the discussion of a topic does not give students the right to censor someone else’s expression.

No one informed Vanessa Snow of this basic principle back in 2009. Ms. Snow, a student government official at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst), stole copies of the campus newspaper The Minuteman out of the hands of a student intending to distribute them. She did this because the issue had a story that mocked Snow by name. (The newspaper criticized Snow, a leader of the campus group Student Bridges, which was heavily supported by the Student Government Association (SGA), over her management of the group’s finances.) Not only did Snow forcibly take the issues of the newspaper—on video—a campus police officer watched the whole thing happen and did nothing about it.

Indeed, the newspaper theft was just one aspect of an overall lamentable affair with respect to free speech and freedom of the press at UMass Amherst. The SGA even passed a resolution demanding that The Minuteman—despite being the target of Snow’s brute act of censorship—publicly apologize to her for its constitutionally protected speech or else face loss of recognition by the SGA. Thankfully, cooler heads within the UMass Amherst administration prevailed, as the university stepped in and condemned the censorship perpetuated by its agents in the student government.

At American University (AU), meanwhile, the campus reaction was just as strong to a controversial student column on date rape. In 2010, Alex Knepper’s column in The Eagle upset some members of the campus community to the point that they stole and vandalized more than 1,000 copies of the independent student newspaper (a significant number given the paper’s 6,000-issue circulation). To its credit, the AU administration never wavered from recognizing the Eagle‘s editorial independence and right to publish the column. The university also responded positively to a letter from FIRE expressing our concerns over the incident, assuring us that AU “do[es] not condone theft, vandalism or actions to curb free speech.” Quite a bit of damage had already been done, however, as AU’s student body had defied AU’s expressed commitment (PDF) to campus free speech.

I wish I could stop there, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the newspaper theft cases we have seen over the years. At Stetson University in Florida, members of a sorority stole around 700 copies of a student newspaper after it had reported on poor living conditions at the sorority house. At the State University of New York at Brockport, the treasurer of the student government stole copies of a campus newspaper and then offered the strange justification that the theft was intended to demonstrate to the student government the amount of money wasted by printing the paper. And then there was the University of California at Berkeley, where the city of Berkeley’s mayor himself got in on the act. Yes, the mayor was actually fined for throwing out 1,000 copies of a student newspaper that endorsed his opponent. However, the case did not go for naught, as the city subsequently passed a law making it illegal to steal newspapers.

The good news is that student journalists do have some recourse when faced with this kind of vandalism. Some cities and states have laws that criminalize newspaper theft (although, regrettably, even these are not immune from attack). In addition, both FIRE and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) have a number of resources available to make student journalists aware of their rights and to help them fight back against campus censorship. If you are a student journalist whose campus newspaper has been the victim of newspaper theft, don’t hesitate to contact FIRE in order to get your rights vindicated!