What does stealing newspapers actually accomplish in 2019?

May 10, 2019

Readers might remember last month when FIRE wrote about how roughly 1,500 issues of Colorado State’s student newspaper, The Collegian, went missing from stands. Multiple eyewitnesses said they saw members of a student government campaign throwing out issues featuring stories that suggested the campaign misreported their funds.

Now, a friend of one of the candidates on that ticket has confessed to stealing and throwing out the papers.

The confession came to light during a hearing on Tuesday night in which one of the candidates, Ben Amundson, defended himself against accusations that his campaign was responsible for stealing the newspapers. From The Collegian:

Two witnesses for the defendants, Sara Kennedy and Gillian Trahan, corroborated Amundson’s statements [that members of the campaign did not steal the newspapers]. Kennedy said she was only a friend, not campaign member, of Amundson’s who threw away papers because she was “extremely hurt to see … one of the better people I have ever met being misrepresented under false pretenses in the newspaper.”

Two witnesses for the complainants, Madison Taylor and Collegian Opinion Editor Jayla Hodge, gave statements implying Amundson did have a more explicit role in what had happened.

During the hearing, Amundson testified that no one from his campaign destroyed or stole copies of the paper, and that when he heard about the copies being destroyed he instructed members not to do that again. According to The Collegian, he also argued that students throwing out papers was their own expression rather than suppression of someone else’s.

That’s not how free speech works.

Categorizing newspaper theft as expression demonstrates a deep disregard for the rights of others and a severe lack of understanding of how the free press operates. Stealing student newspapers, even ones that are free, isn’t simply an act of censorship — it’s theft. As my colleague Adam Goldstein explains:

…[T]aking a large quantity of free newspapers is theft. At first blush, it can seem counterintuitive that you can steal something that’s given away. But the very fact that it can be given away means that the newspaper is property, and the owner of property can choose to give it away one at a time, and defend that right with the authority of the law.

This conclusion becomes more natural when you compare newspapers to any other property that’s intended to be given away one at a time. If you take a bucket of Halloween candy, or a pallet of toasters that a bank was going to give away with a new account, or a carton of ketchup packets from a fast food restaurant, it isn’t a defense that the owner was going to give them away anyway. They were giving them away because they got a benefit in giving them out in small numbers to many people. Taking them all at once deprives the owner of that benefit.

Theft of student newspapers is nothing new. FIRE has written ad nauseum about this particular type of censorship. Just type in “newspaper theft” on our website and be amazed at how often this actually happens.

And we’re not the only ones noticing an uptick recently. In this year alone, the Student Press Law Center has covered newspaper thefts at Colorado State University, Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, St. Edward’s and Baylor universities in Texas, and at the University of South Carolina.

Just last month, staffers in the admissions office of the University of Massachusetts Boston asked the editor not to put out the latest edition of the paper due to a story about a dorm room hazmat scare that was unflattering to the university. The SPLC reported that 200 copies of the paper were stolen, and when the editor refilled the rack, she found the papers flipped over and covered by a jacket.

While we appreciate the attention this draws to 2019 being the Year of the Student Journalist, we would rather it not come at the cost of stolen property.

But moral issues aside, these recent thefts prompt a question: What exactly does stealing a physical copy of a newspaper accomplish in the age of smartphones and online news? At a time where article in most student newspapers can be read online, stealing physical copies usually only serves to get more eyes on the story that was intended to be suppressed. After all, I’m certain very few readers of FIRE’s Newsdesk or SPLC’s blog would have even known there was, for example, a hazmat incident at UMass Boston which resulted in a student being taken out on a stretcher. And yet, because of the theft, now I know about it, and so do you.

Funny how that works.

FIRE will continue to monitor these cases and all cases of newspaper theft around the country. To learn more about student press rights on campus, visit our student press resource page, and be sure to contact FIRE if you think you’ve been censored on your campus.


Schools:  Colorado State University