Sad but true: College newspapers are stolen with mind-numbing regularity. Just about every semester brings fresh reports of newspapers being stolen right from their racks, a clumsy act of censorship that campus speech watchdogs like FIRE and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) have been forced to condemn countless times over the years.
Unfortunately, this semester has proven no different.
Earlier this week, the Student Press Law Center’s Mary Tyler March penned a depressingly thorough round-up of recent newspaper thefts of college papers across the country. March details thefts and vandalism committed against the Butler Collegian (Butler University), El Sol (Southwestern College), The Minaret (the University of Tampa), The Torch (St. John’s University), The Quinnipiac Chronicle (Quinnipiac University), and Lindenlink (Lindenwood University), interviewing student journalists about what triggered the criminal activity and how they’ve responded.
Typically, community members steal student papers in a misguided effort to prevent others from seeing a particular piece of reporting. For example, at the University of Tampa, a Minaret story on the relationship between sexual assault and fraternities on campus seems to have been the spark for $1,300 worth of newspaper thefts:
Minaret staff began noticing that newly replenished stacks of papers had been emptied from their stands in multiple buildings on campus. [Minaret editors] Sheets, Lopez and San Felice also wrote that the university’s Campus Safety had captured security camera footage of two males taking entire stacks of papers from the floor of one building.
“It was very clear that the group of students didn’t want the article out because they wanted to protect the USF student on the cover,” San Felice said in an interview. “They didn’t want the Pi Kapp (fraternity) name to look bad even if it was at another school.”
At other schools, March reports, newspapers were defaced in response to stories touching upon hot-button political discussions, like the presidential election or a university’s policies regarding transgender issues.
March concludes with an evergreen reminder: Stealing newspapers is a crime that hurts student journalism and the larger campus community. Quoting student journalists at Quinnipiac who have been the victims of newspaper theft themselves, she writes:
Representatives from neither student publication could be reached by press time, but a Nov. 17 article published by The Quinnipiac Chronicle states, “Newspaper theft is a crime and anyone who violates the single copy rule may be subject to civil and criminal prosecution and/or subject to university discipline.”
Apart from the lost opportunity to reach readers, the theft of newspapers also imposes a significant financial burden to the paper’s creators – a burden that costs student media thousands of dollars nationally each year. While most college newspapers are distributed free of charge, creating and distributing the publication involves significant money and labor that is wasted when papers are damaged or destroyed.
Many student news organizations pay editorial staff to produce the newspaper, advertising staff to sell ads, printers to print the product and circulation staff to distribute the paper each time it’s published. While many schools charge students a student activity fee that goes toward funding the newspaper and giving them, in turn, a “prepaid subscription,” newspapers independent of their universities rely on revenue from ad sales to keep their publications afloat.
As explained in the SPLC’s newspaper theft guide: “Newspaper theft presents a serious threat to the viability of the student press community; letting the thieves get away with it threatens the viability of a free press itself.”
We at FIRE condemn newspaper theft—again—in the strongest terms. We urge law enforcement and university administrators to take appropriate action when responding to university theft and vandalism on campus. Meanwhile, we invite students to learn more about newspaper theft and other forms of censorship from our student press resource. As always, contact us if you’ve been censored on campus.