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Trends in College Media

An online publication of the Associated Collegiate Press

Newspaper theft remains popular form of censorship
3/1/2005

By Mike Hiestand
Thousands of college newspapers each year are confiscated or trashed by those who see publication theft as an easy and exceedingly effective form of censorship. After all, readers can't read what they never see.

Campus newspaper theft, virtually unheard of until the early 1990s when it became something of a "fad," has now become a regular hazard for college student media. Thousands of college newspapers each year - at dozens of campuses across the country - are confiscated or trashed by those who see publication theft as an easy and exceedingly effective form of censorship. After all, readers can't read what they never see.

The motivation for theft varies. As do the thieves. Greek organizations, for example, have occasionally seen newspaper theft as the best way to kill a story that includes negative news about their fraternity or sorority (or one of their members) and have frequently sent out thieves en masse. Athletic teams have been caught doing the same. Campus minority or political groups, upset with coverage they deem harmful or insulting, sometimes take it upon themselves to rid the campus of the offending publication. Spring is actually our "busy season" for newspaper theft. Each year student government candidates and their supporters trash student papers that carry endorsements of their opponents. Parents' Weekends or Open House events are another peak theft period as administrators - or others who would rather not have the school's "dirty laundry" shared with visitors - make a clean sweep of newspaper distribution racks. Campus police blotters, personal ads and even bad restaurant reviews have all triggered thefts. And sometimes thousands of papers simply disappear for reasons that are known only to the thieves themselves.

Over the years, as law enforcement officials have come to understand newspaper theft as not just a harmless prank, but the serious and growing threat to campus speech and student media that it is, many (though certainly not all) have become more aggressive in cracking down on such conduct. There have been several successful criminal prosecutions across the country, most being prosecuted under a generic "theft of property" or "malicious conduct" law. However, at least two states (Maryland and Colorado) and a handful of municipalities (including San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif.) have enacted laws or ordinances that specifically prohibit the bulk taking of publications, whether they are distributed for free or not.

While an increasing number of schools have imposed their own sanctions against student newspaper thieves, many others have declined to do so. Sometimes campus officials conclude that "free" newspapers cannot be stolen. Such a shortsighted view ignores the obvious fact that there is no such thing as a "free" newspaper. As any advertiser who pays for ads or any publisher who pays a printer's bill - among various other expenses - will attest, every publication costs money to produce and has value, but only if readers are permitted to read them.

In some cases, school officials have claimed that they are powerless to act because their campus conduct code doesn't address newspaper theft. At least part of that claim appears to be true. While most campus conduct codes include provisions that are broad enough to include newspaper theft (for example, "destruction of property," "malicious conduct," "unauthorized possession of property," etc.), few, if any, schools have officially adopted policies that specifically address publication theft. It's time for that to change.

College and university officials routinely pay lip service to the importance of free speech and robust campus debate. But talk alone is not enough. Passing a policy that prohibits and punishes publication theft is a positive step towards ensuring that free speech is a reality. Almost every school has a student conduct policy that lists prohibited conduct and penalties and describes the school's disciplinary process. The following model publication theft provision could easily be added to most such policies:

"The following conduct is prohibited at XYZ University: ... Publication theft. A person commits the offense of publication theft when he or she willfully or knowingly obtains or exerts unauthorized control over more than three copies of an edition of a publication distributed on campus [with the intent to prevent other individuals from reading that edition of the publication]. A "publication" includes any periodical that is distributed on a complimentary or compensatory basis. In addition to the imposition of other campus disciplinary penalties, a person who violates this provision is responsible for compensating the publication for all reasonable costs incurred, including, where appropriate, the refund of advertising fees." [The bracketed portion is optional language.]

The theft of campus publications is a genuine threat to student media. While existing laws and campus conduct codes have been used to punish newspaper thieves, not all law enforcement or school officials have been willing to invoke them. A simple amendment - such as the one above - to a school's existing campus conduct code can be an effective solution to the menacing "fad" that is apparently here to stay.

Mike Hiestand is an attorney, based in the far, upper left corner of the "Lower 48," and works as a legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center.

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