Why Free Press Shouldn’t Have a Price

July 30, 2012

Shelli Gimelstein is a FIRE summer intern.

Next to squirrels and Apple products, student newspapers are perhaps the most ubiquitous items on a college campus. You can see them peeking out of backpacks during the morning rush to class, sticking out amid a sea of coffee cups in the study lounge, or lying flat on lecture hall chairs as students sneak glances at the headlines while taking notes.

So why are some universities and state commissions treating student newspapers — a staple of campus life that students rely on to know what’s really going on at their school — like an ordinary scrap of paper fit for the recycling bin?

In the words of a Colorado commission that has recommended the repeal of a state law banning free newspaper theft, student newspapers — which are distributed on most campuses free of charge — don’t deserve protection from theft because they’re not “something that has value.”

The commission believes the law, which penalizes large-scale free paper theft and gives those publications, including student periodicals, the ability to sue for damages, should be overturned because only five cases of free newspaper theft have surfaced since its 2004 enactment. By arguing that stealing free papers doesn’t constitute theft, the commission has deemed those newspapers — and the extensive process that goes into producing them — to be essentially worthless. Clearly the 27 members of the commission have never spent a late night in the production office painstakingly editing a story. Any student who has ever been informed, inspired, or even outraged by an article about their school may also beg to differ.

It’s more of the same at the University of Florida (UF), where administrators seem to think the student newspaper’s value lies solely in the money the paper must pay the school to use its racks.

UF is requiring The Independent Florida Alligator — the University of Florida’s independent student paper, stacked in bright orange news racks for nearly 40 years — to sign a licensing agreement with the school in order to lease space in school-owned modular black racks. To add insult to injury, the university is also demanding that the Alligator remove 19 of its orange racks from campus.

It’s evident that this isn’t purely a business decision on the part of the UF; developments over the past few years suggest that the school has a problem with the Alligator being distributed at all. For example, in December 2009, the UF Board of Trustees adopted a rule prohibiting the distribution of all publications on campus unless approved by UF’s Vice President for Business Affairs.

If the University of Florida succeeds in forcing the Alligator to accept these restrictions, it won’t just be a loss for the Alligator staff, who spend countless hours writing, editing, and producing their paper late into the night, and deserve the right to distribute their work on their own terms. Requiring the Alligator to obtain approval prior to publication and then controlling its campus distribution enables the University to exercise prior restraint. As a result, the university has seized the power to censor the newspaper and threaten the objectivity of its news stories, dealing a major blow to the entire University of Florida community. Because this policy extends to all University of Florida publications, it infringes upon the free expression rights that all students are entitled to at a public university.

As a longtime reporter at The Daily Pennsylvanian — which has been independent and free of the University of Pennsylvania administration’s control since 1962 — I’ve never had to worry about being censored or restricted. While many of my peers grumble about DP staff waving papers in their faces on Locust Walk, if Penn ever decided to prevent us from freely distributing the DP, there would be an outcry moments later from the entire campus community.

The University of Florida could take a lesson from Penn’s administration, which embraces the DP as a valuable way to publicize university news and stay connected with the student body. As a result, the DP‘s marketing slogan — “What Penn’s Talking About” — couldn’t be more true: through the hard work of its editorial board and its positive relationship with the university, the DP remains a vital part of the campus conversation.

However, this wasn’t always the case at Penn. If Colorado’s legislature approves the repeal of the anti-theft law, Colorado universities would likely experience an increase in cases similar to what occurred at Penn in 1993, when 14,000 copies of The Daily Pennsylvanian mysteriously went missing.

While DP staff members spent the morning fishing piles of papers out of dumpsters, the Penn administration investigated the incident and affirmed its violation of university policy, but it ultimately did not take action against the students — referring to themselves in a signed note as the “Black Community” — who had stolen the papers due to disagreement with a controversial piece by a conservative columnist. Under Pennsylvania law, the act was not a criminal offense.

Together, the proposed decriminalization of newspaper theft in Colorado and the attempted restriction of the student paper at the University of Florida suggest that the tireless labor of both student and professional journalists is not worthy of protection or respect. Both efforts may also discourage other universities and states from adopting policies protecting the press, as the state of Maryland and the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley, California have done.

Anyone who’s ever been misquoted or had their name misspelled in a student paper might not rush to its defense. However, I believe that a free newspaper — and the free expression rights necessary to produce its contents — is an absolutely essential part of campus life. Newspapers are a powerful tool for holding schools accountable and keeping students informed about issues that directly affect their lives. By creating a space for the free exchange of information and ideas, a student newspaper fosters constructive dialogue and debate — both of which are key to progress in a college community. Sadly, many students may not realize this until it’s too late.

Schools:  University of Florida