For the 10th time this year, a campus newspaper has reported the theft of multiple copies of its editions, the Student Press Law Center reported Thursday.
In the latest case,The Quinnipiac Chronicle of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., had 200 copies of its papers stolen and dumped in trash cans on Wednesday.
Newspaper’s staffers suspect the theft’s related to a story about the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, which is under investigation by the university for reports of inappropriate behavior. Steve McSpiritt, business manager of student media, told the law center:
“There’s no information in there except for what (university spokesman John Morgan) told us,” McSpiritt said. “It was only a few paragraphs, but it was clearly enough to start a backlash.”
The Chronicle’s was the second theft reported this week. Tuesday night saw the disappearance of the entire 4,000-edition run of The Saddleback College Lariat, based in Mission Viejo, Calif. Editor Phil Vogel told the law center’s Samantha Sunne that the papers were left as usual outside the newspaper’s office, but then went missing:
There wasn’t anything hugely controversial in the issue, Vogel said. The only thing slightly controversial in the issue was a front-page story about the limited security on campus at night, said Michele Hardy, a copy editor for the paper.
“It could be perceived as bashing,” Hardy said.
And that disappearance follows yet another theft reported by The Crusader newspaper of Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kansas. The newspaper staff noticed its Oct. 10 monthly editions were disappearing from racks at an alarming rate, according to a law-center article:
“The last issue that The Crusader put out seemed to disappear from the racks in the blink of an eye,” staff wrote in an editorial published in its Nov. 6 issue. “Our main suspicion is that the newspapers are being taken off the racks with the intention of keeping students and faculty from reading them.”
The racks had to be restocked multiple times, New Media Director Diana Chavira told the law center. The story that might have incited the thefts was one about a drug bust on campus that two reporters covered while it was under way, Chavira said, adding that “apparently, a lot of people didn’t like that.”
Although some campus newspaper thefts may appear minor and the motives behind others are murky, all potentially involve serious First Amendment violations.
“It’s always a logical suspicion that when newspapers disappear, there’s a censorship motive behind it,” Frank LoMonte, the law center’s executive director, told Poynter by email following the Crusader theft.
It’s easy to assume most of the thefts are the work of students with a grudge against the campus newspapers, LoMonte wrote, but that’s not always the case.
“Amazingly, it’s often the college itself rather than some rogue student who turns out to be responsible, which doesn’t seem like it should be possible in the year 2013,” he said. “The idea that you can stop unwelcome news from reaching people by taking newspapers seems like it should have been left in 1950.”
The thefts this year are already too many, but the numbers were worse last year when the law center received 27 reports of stolen newspapers.
The numbers suggest no obvious trends. LoMonte said what is clear is that colleges are more image-conscious as competition for student applicants grows and courts and legislatures refuse to protect students’ First Amendment rights.
“When student speech is devalued, people don’t feel that suppressing it is any great loss to the community,” he wrote. “We have to work as a culture, starting with our K-12 schools, to help people appreciate that strong journalism is essential to a healthy community, and when we do that, people will stop thinking of newspapers as disposable.”
The law center provides guidance on preventing campus newspaper thefts and what student journalists can do after newspaper thefts occur.