Recently, the State University of New York at Brockport (SUNY Brockport) has been home to one of the stranger incidents of newspaper theft I’ve come across in my years at FIRE, coupled with one of the most breathtakingly bad justifications for such activity.
First, the theft. According to William Matthias, Editor in Chief of the newspaper in question, The Stylus:
[Brockport Student Government, which partially funds The Stylus] Treasurer Kyle Kirchgraber recently "borrowed" bundles of The Stylus newspapers, or at least authorized the removal of the bundles, to present to the BSG appropriations committee during the budget review process. He wanted to show the board how much money The Stylus "wastes" on printing. In the process, he committed theft and violated the First Amendment.
Not your usual theft, it would appear, in that it seems not to have been motivated by the Stylus‘ content but by a plan to demonstrate that the paper was printing more copies than students were picking up (ever heard of a camera?). But we’ve seen plenty of student governments retaliate against publications that gave them unfavorable coverage, so it would not be a surprise to find a content-based motive here as well.
Even if the theft was only about "waste," does that make it better? Heck no. As Adam Goldstein of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) sums up, "The nicest thing you could say about the student government moving these papers into another area is that they went out of their way to offend the First Amendment, deprive advertisers of the value of their ad revenue and deprive the student body of the newspaper it paid for."
Matthias’ Stylus column rightly called the BSG’s action what it was—theft. The BSG responded to the content of the column by accusing Matthias of libel, demanding he be fired, and demanding that the column be retracted and removed from the paper’s website—in the words of William Smith, Jr., BSG’s attorney, to "diminish the harm he has caused."
But I haven’t even gotten to the most ludicrous part of BSG’s defense. As Smith wrote in his letter to Matthias, "any and all assets owned by The Stylus are in fact owned by BSG. To the extent that an officer of BSG acquires or uses those assets for a purpose that is common to both the organization and BSG, it is simply using its own assets."
This will come across to many, I imagine, as slightly mad in practical terms. The SPLC’s Adam Goldstein also finds this argument specious from a legal standpoint, commenting to The Stylus, "Does the student government own the property in this way? No. The money is to serve a specific purpose, and that is to provide opportunities to the students at Brockport."
If that’s what the BSG thinks, though, then perhaps SUNY Brockport’s student groups should consider following its directive to the letter. In fact, this could even turn out to be a service for them. Office space—if you’re lucky enough to get it allocated to your group—is notoriously cramped. Why not just give the stuff cluttering up your office to the BSG? Don’t know what to do with all those handmade signs left over from your last rally? The BSG is happy to take them from you! Stuck with a bunch of balloons after your group’s party? Give them to your student government! A few thousand buttons left over from the end of campaign season? The BSG will give them a home!
This all sounds faintly ridiculous, of course. But then again, so does the Brockport Student Government.