Work at FIRE long enough, and sooner or later you’re bound to think you’ve seen it all when it comes to censorship on campus. After nearly four years here, I certainly thought I could no longer be shocked by the suppression of student speech. But a story from East Texas this week has floored me.
Here’s what happened: On February 25, Texas A&M-Commerce’s student newspaper The East Texan featured a front-page story reporting that two members of the school’s football team had been arrested on drug charges. But many of The East Texan‘s readers never got to read that story in the print edition, because between 7 AM and 8 AM that morning, copies of the February 25th edition of the paper were stolen off the racks across campus. The widespread theft suggested a coordinated effort, and the negative story about the team seemed to suggest a motive. Sure enough, The East Texan reported later that day on its website that evidence implicating the football team had surfaced:
Crime Information Officer Lt. Jason Bone said an investigation is underway, which has led him to believe members of the football team are responsible for the theft. Bone said cameras located on campus have recorded several men stealing the papers. Some of the men recorded have been identified as football players according to Bone.
Ok, so far, we’ve got a relatively routine instance of newspaper theft, the kind that FIRE unfortunately sees all too often. But here’s where it gets shocking: Head Coach Guy Morriss, when confronted with his team’s actions, decided to brag about the criminal censorship rather than renounce it. Wow.
On Feb. 26, Crime Information Officer Lt. Jason Bone interviewed head coach of the football team Guy Morriss, who said he advocated his players’ actions.
"I’m proud of my players for doing that," he said. "This was the best team building exercise we have ever done."
President Dan Jones said he met with Morriss a few days later on Mar. 1. During the meeting, Jones said he and Morriss discussed disciplinary actions for the football players involved. Morriss said he would not make any apologies for the team, and they would suffer the consequences as a team, since the team committed the action.
Bone said he met with Athletic Director Carlton Cooper about the thefts. Cooper said he did not think the players involved could have planned the theft.
"I don’t think they are smart enough to do this on their own," Cooper said.
Bone led the investigation, which inevitably implicated the majority of the football team. Bone said since the papers were stolen in such a short period of time it seems likely several people perpetrated the act.
"I would say almost all of the football team would have to be involved to do this," he said.
On Feb. 26, Bone said he was asked by Assistant Chief of the University Police Department Bryan Vaughn to come to his office. When he arrived, Bone said he saw Morriss in Vaughn’s office. Bone asked Morriss if he had seen the most recent issue of the paper. Morris replied with negative comments regarding The East Texan.
"I don’t read that crap," he said.
Bone said he then showed Morriss the top headline on the front page of the edition, which read, "Football players arrested in drug bust." To this Morriss responded he did not pay any attention to that crap. Morriss then asked for clarification on how taking a free paper was considered theft.
Again: Wow. Not only was Coach Morriss blustering on record about being proud of his team’s lawless disregard for speech, but all signs point towards him actually planning the mass theft, since even the school’s own Athletic Director thinks the team is too dumb to put together the scheme by themselves. This is easily the most unintentionally funny/depressing newspaper theft story I’ve seen since the sisters of Zeta Tau Alpha at Florida’s Stetson University stole 700 copies of The Reporter that contained a story detailing the sorority house’s mold problem.
As for Coach Morriss needing "clarification" on how taking a free paper counts as theft, the Student Press Law Center’s Adam Goldstein is happy to explain:
[N]ewspaper theft is, well, theft. Printed in every copy of the East Texan is a statement that copies beyond the first cost a quarter—but even without such a statement, stealing all the newspapers would still be theft. The fact that the owner of property chooses not to charge for it doesn’t make it legal for someone else to come along and destroy it.
For example, if I wanted to give you a free car, and someone else came along and set it on fire, it would hardly be a defense that the car was "free." The vandal would owe us the value of the car. That’s because deciding not to charge for something doesn’t mean it has no value under the law. Newspapers are no different; advertisers paid good money to have their ads printed and distributed.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. I always like to answer the "hey, but these are free" argument by asking folks if they actually purchase ketchup in bottles at a supermarket, or just head to their nearest fast-food joint and snatch up 20 ounces worth of the complimentary packets. Plus there’s the fact that these folks were stealing the papers not so they could distribute them to readers or send some home to Mom, but rather to make sure that no one could read them. That’s censorship, plain and simple.
As The East Texan wrote in an editorial yesterday:
Coach Morriss seems to think the way to stop criticism of his program is the same way you stop opponents on the football field: by hitting them in the mouth. The problem is, this is not a game, and just as Morriss seems to think he does not have to play by rules laid out in the U.S. Constitution, we in turn do not have to let petty bully tactics interfere with what we feel is our duty: to report on what happens at this campus, both good and bad.
Given his seeming penchant for lawless censorship, here’s hoping that Coach Morriss will soon be ex-Coach Morriss.