Students debate newspaper theft

Approximately 1,000 copies of the April 7 Baker Orange disappeared from every distribution site on campus except the Collins Center and the Heath and Counseling Center, Orange editor Jen Thierer said.

With no evidence of what happened, all that is left is speculation, investigation and discussion of students’ rights.

Associate Professor of Journalism Gwyn Mellinger, faculty adviser to the Orange, said she received two phone calls from faculty members at 8:13 a.m. and 8:17 a.m. reporting the newspapers’ disappearance at two locations on campus after those faculty members arrived to work at 8 a.m. Mellinger said there is no doubt this incident was an intentional ploy.

“It has to be a theft. I mean, these things don’t evaporate,” she said. “We’re talking about this happening at multiple locations between 8 and 8:15 a.m. We’re convinced this was a coordinated effort.”

Thierer said she believed the theft to be a preemptive attempt to conceal a story run on page 1A about junior John Roper’s arrest in Manhattan for with several drug charges.

Dean of Student Development John Frazier said the thefts were probably not a spur of the moment decision.

“Whoever did it was pretty informed and insightful,” Frazier said. “Somebody did their homework.”

Thierer filed a police report with Baldwin City Police Tuesday morning. McKenna said earlier this week no information has given an indication of who is responsible for the event after several people have been questioned.

“Because of the narrow window of opportunity for the papers to have been taken, it tells you the papers were either not distributed or the person or persons knew the time when the papers would be distributed,” McKenna said. “In a case like this, you look at the people who would have a vested interest in the newspaper not being distributed and go about your investigation in that manner.”

After the theft was discovered, the Orange staff sent an e-mail informing students to look online to view the issue. The issue was also reprinted April 11 and redistributed around campus.

“As a result of this, the people who didn’t want people to see the Orange assured that more people saw the Orange,” Mellinger said. “I don’t understand why anyone thinks this is going to make this story go away. As a matter of principle, we are always going to rerun the paper. You cannot steal the paper and censor the Orange.”

Mellinger cited censorship as a primary concern in the incident, comparing the theft of the newspaper to a ban on sidewalk chalking or a restriction on student forums.

“I think every student and every faculty member ought to be concerned if a student’s free speech were stifled in a classroom,” Mellinger said. “We all need to be protecting each others’ rights to speak out here.”

Thierer said she was frustrated with the complete disregard for the work going into the newspaper production.

“That was an immense amount of time and effort that could have gone to waste if we had not been able to afford to reprint that paper. We all spent that many hours on it, and then somebody decided their opinions were more important than that time and effort,” she said. “It’s a huge monetary issue. It’s also an issue of free speech. If everyone stole a newspaper every time they disagreed with the content, we would never have a newspaper. The purpose of the student media, particularly on a campus that values critical thinking, is to provide a forum for people to express their viewpoints.”

As a result of the two press runs, two distributions and labor costs, the April 7 edition was the most expensive of the year at an estimated total cost of $2,500, Thierer said.

If an arrest was made in the theft, charges would be dependent on the determined value of stolen goods, McKenna said. The minimum value for felony theft is $1,000.

Frazier said if a student were proven to be the thief, that student would go through the university judicial process to decide what repercussions would be given. He said the punishment could be a range of things, including a fine, community service or suspension, depending on the student’s history.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said newspaper thefts are not uncommon in academic settings.

“News theft has been a problem all around the country on college and university campuses for about the last decade,” Goodman said.

Goodman said many instances of such theft are comparable to speculations made at Baker of protection by some individual having personal connections to Roper.

“I think many of the situations that we’ve seen have been situations where someone has been embarrassed by something that is published in a newspaper,” Goodman said.

Goodman said in recent years, national statistics have shown around 40 such thefts on college campuses around the nation. However, he said that number has come down to the teens within recent years.

Goodman said newspaper thefts are more prevalent on smaller campuses.

“It’s more easily achievable,” he said. “If you’re at a big public university where they distribute 15,000 newspapers, it’s a little harder to steal enough papers to make an impact.”

The last such incident on Baker’s campus took place Nov. 16, 2001, when about 700 newspapers were stolen. Then Director of Admission Cheryl McCrary admitted to taking a portion of the newspapers out of campus view to keep prospective students from reading about a reported date-rape charge.