Theft and Defacing of Campus Newspapers is Censorship

POSTED BY HANK REICHMAN

Last week the AAUP, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Student Press Law Center issued a report on “Threats to the Independence of Student Media,” which cited multiple cases in which college and university administrations exerted pressure in attempts to control, edit, or censor student journalistic content.  The report did not cover one form of de facto censorship, often practiced by some students and individuals: the theft or defacing of campus newspapers by people who do not like or agree with what they report.  Now the Student Press Law Center has published a summary of recent such incidents, under the title “Missing: A review of newspaper theft and vandalism at colleges across the country.” Here are some excerpts from that review:

In September, Butler University’s student newspaper, the Butler Collegian, published a front-page article about the university’s gender-inclusive housing policy, accompanied by a graphic depicting the symbols for the male and female genders. According to an article by the Collegian, individuals then took papers from the campus racks and drew the transgender symbol in the design writing, “TRANSformBU” and “We fixed it for you,” on some of the issues.

In an article following the issue’s publication, the Collegian wrote a press release stating, “In no way was the article’s purpose to cause any pain or harm to anyone. We recognize – and embrace – the right to free speech.”

But, the Collegian wrote, defacing property is not free speech and the damage done to the copies of the Collegian was financially significant, costing around $700 to print the approximately 850 copies that were affected. . . .

On numerous occasions, Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, saw copies of its newspaper, the Southwestern College Sun, and its magazine, El Sol, defaced with racist messages and calls to vote for now-president-elect Donald Trump.

In June, the paper reported, several issues of The Sun were vandalized when someone wrote “Trump 2016” across the face of Mona Dibas, a Muslim woman photographed in a hijab. The next month, The Sun reported, nearly $3,000 worth of copies of El Sol Magazine with Dibas’ photo on the cover were vandalized or stolen from distribution racks at businesses across from Southwestern’s campus.

Most recently, The Sun reported, a man unaffiliated with the university wrote “F*ck Blacks” across an October issue of the paper depicting an African-American man demonstrating in El Cajon after the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant. . . .

. . . the University of Tampa’s student newspaper, The Minaretreported more than $1,300 worth of newspapers were thrown out after it published a front-page story in October about sexual assault in Greek Life at the University of South Florida.

In an editorial published on The Minaret’s website that same day, editors Tess Sheets, Bianca Lopez and Selene San Felice wrote that around 1:10 p.m., three male students approached a table where Minaret staff members were handing out papers and took one.

The editorial goes on to say that the students began walking away when one scoffed at the front page story, mentioning the fraternity to which the USF student accused of sexual assault belonged.

The authors wrote the student then slapped the newspaper out of his friend’s hand and onto the ground before another said, “We need to throw these all away.” One of the students then reportedly offered The Minaret $2 for the rest of their newspapers and, after staff declined, said he planned on throwing the papers away.

Minaret staff began noticing that newly replenished stacks of papers had been emptied from their stands in multiple buildings on campus. Sheets, Lopez and San Felice also wrote that the university’s Campus Safety had captured security camera footage of two males taking entire stacks of papers from the floor of one building. . . .

Last month, New York’s St. John’s University saw similar acts of vandalism and destruction to its newspapers published the day after the 2016 election.

According to Suzanne Ciechalski, The Torch’s editor in chief, newspaper staff had found copies of its papers torn up on campus, along with stacks of the papers turned to hide the front page. Ciechalski said editors received texts about stacks being flipped over in a central campus building that acts as a common student hang-out between classes. One editor, she said, saw students throw papers in the trash and saw a few papers tossed over a staircase in an on-campus building. . . .

Both Quinnipiac University and Lindenwood University’s student newspapers are investigating the theft of hundreds of newspapers that were taken in November.

Representatives from neither student publication could be reached by press time, but a Nov. 17 article published by The Quinnipiac Chronicle states, “Newspaper theft is a crime and anyone who violates the single copy rule may be subject to civil and criminal prosecution and/or subject to university discipline.”

The review concludes:

Apart from the lost opportunity to reach readers, the theft of newspapers also imposes a significant financial burden to the paper’s creators – a burden that costs student media thousands of dollars nationally each year. While most college newspapers are distributed free of charge, creating and distributing the publication involves significant money and labor that is wasted when papers are damaged or destroyed.

Many student news organizations pay editorial staff to produce the newspaper, advertising staff to sell ads, printers to print the product and circulation staff to distribute the paper each time it’s published. While many schools charge students a student activity fee that goes toward funding the newspaper and giving them, in turn, a “prepaid subscription,” newspapers independent of their universities rely on revenue from ad sales to keep their publications afloat.

As explained in the SPLC’s newspaper theft guide: “Newspaper theft presents a serious threat to the viability of the student press community; letting the thieves get away with it threatens the viability of a free press itself.”

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