Disappointingly, in just the past two weeks FIRE has learned from the Student Press Law Center’s (SPLC’s) website about three incidents of people stealing student newspapers on college campuses in apparent attempts to censor specific stories. In alarmingly short order, hundreds of copies of the student newspapers at Pepperdine University, Iowa State University, and Elmhurst College in Illinois were stolen. The responsible parties at Elmhurst, at least, will be punished.
SPLC reports that approximately 500 copies of the September 25 issue of the Pepperdine Graphic—about a quarter of those distributed—disappeared from newsstands on Pepperdine’s campus. According to SPLC, those who removed the papers were likely motivated by a “story about a Pepperdine junior and an unidentified passenger who were airlifted from an area state park after the student drove into the side of a mountain and rolled over.” Previously, hundreds of copies of the paper were also stolen in October 2012, to hide another car accident and DUI charge.
At Iowa State University (ISU), 1,900 copies of Wednesday’s issue of the Iowa State Daily were found in the trash. The Daily’s adviser, Mark Witherspoon, spoke to SPLC about what might have prompted readers to want the papers gone:
Witherspoon believes an article about Greek life in Wednesday’s edition may have been a factor. In the article, three Greek chapters were placed under interim suspension after an incident that involved “medical and police response.”
“We have our suspicions, but we haven’t confirmed anything yet,” Witherspoon said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, ISU had seen a similar incident before, too:
In 2013, almost every copy of the magazine Ethos was thrown out because people were not happy with an article about an ISU basketball player who was charged with sexual assault, Witherspoon said.
Finally, 800 copies of Tuesday’s issue of Elmhurst College’s student newspaper The Leader were found in the trash. The issue featured an article about alleged hazing by the sorority Phi Mu. According to SPLC:
[Editor-in-chief Zachary] Bishop said 1,500 papers were printed and papers were taken from stands near the library, student center, technology building and academic buildings. The estimated cost of the theft exceeds $1,000.
Some Elmhurst College students saw members of the Phi Mu sorority throwing away stacks of papers, according to the release. Staff members looked for the newspapers and found hundreds thrown in campus trash bins.
Five Phi Mu members have taken responsibility for throwing away the papers, and the sorority will pay for the issue to be reprinted. According to Elmhurst spokesperson Desiree Chen, the students responsible might also be put on probation or be assigned writing projects on free speech. She said:
The College is extremely disappointed in the actions taken by these students. … Our Student Affairs staff immediately conveyed to them how harmful their actions were. The Leader was right to protest this attack on their First Amendment rights, and Student Affairs has reached out to them and has been working with them to resolve the matter.
FIRE is happy to see college officials respond swiftly to ensure that students at Elmhurst understand the nature of this crime.
I’ve written here on The Torch about the many critically important functions that the student media serves, including allowing students to develop writing and analytical skills and informing the campus community about matters of public concern. As my colleague Sarah McLaughlin wrote last month, reporting on newspaper thefts at Auburn University:
Newspaper theft is one of the most egregious forms of censorship on campus. Students and administrators do not have have the right to censor a newspaper simply because they are offended by its content. If students dislike the content of a newspaper or disagree with the opinions expressed in it, they should express that by writing a letter to the editor or by using some other platform to share their countervailing view, instead of illegally stealing the newspaper.
And as SPLC explains on its website, taking scores of papers offered for free to read constitutes illegal theft.
Publishing a student newspaper is an expensive undertaking; student media lose thousands of dollars each year as a result of newspaper theft. Like other types of theft, newspaper thieves deprive rightful owners of their valuable property. Among other expenses, student news organizations pay editorial staff to produce the newspaper, advertising staff to sell ads, printers to print it and circulation staff to distribute the finished product. At many schools, students are charged a student activity fee that entitles them to a “prepaid subscription” to their student media. In almost all cases businesses and others have paid to have their advertisements published — money they certainly would not pay if they knew their ad would never be read.
But where legal and moral arguments might fail to deter students inclined to hide controversial or embarrassing news stories from their peers, maybe they should consider the practical repercussions of their actions.
First is the classic argument against censorship: You’re next. After all, this week Phi Mu wanted to keep a story about alleged hazing under wraps, but Phi Mu members would probably not be pleased if they wrote an article to share their viewpoints and someone else tried to keep it from would-be readers.
Second is a lesson today’s college and university students really should understand, given that they’ve grown up with the Internet: the so-called Streisand effect, after interest in a photo of Barbra Streisand’s home skyrocketed only after she tried to suppress it. Students who are written about in the newspaper can be virtually certain that more people are going to know about whatever they’re trying to hide because they tried to hide it. A post to Yik Yak regarding the incident at ISU is illustrative: “Just saw a girl take ALL of the ISU Dailys from the library. WHAT ARE YOU HIDING GIRL?!” And, of course, now the stories are being written about (if indirectly) on blogs like SPLC’s and The Torch.
It will benefit everyone at colleges and universities across the country if students learn to respect student media, whether it’s because they are afraid of being charged with theft or they can imagine being the victim of censorship in the future.