To some it was a prank. To others, theft and an assault on the First Amendment.
About two-thirds of the copies of Student Voice, the weekly University of Wisconsin-River Falls student newspaper, were stolen Thursday from academic buildings shortly after they were dropped off.
Ransom notes were left. Then, in an e-mail message to student editors, the Army of the Flying Squirrels vowed to strike again if the paper didn’t retract everything it has ever published.
The 2,000 stolen papers, which had been deposited inside the office of a chemistry professor, were later recovered outside his office with a note reading, “I’m finished with these.”
Junior Jen Cullen, editor of the Voice, and staff members investigated what they believe is a theft and contacted the Student Press Law Center.
Pat Berg, a journalism professor and Voice adviser, contacted the chemistry professor, the chairman of the department and the chancellor.
Berg said another professor opened the door to allow students to enter and leave the newspapers in his colleague’s office, believing it was a prank, but did not know the volume of papers about to be delivered.
The e-mail writer, Cullen said, wrote that pilfering papers would continue, because “we can’t get in trouble” for taking campus newspapers.
The assumption that there are no consequences for stealing freely distributed student newspapers in large volumes has been proved wrong in other instances of campus newspaper theft.
Student fees pay for the printing of the paper, and advertising pays other expenses, including the salaries of the student staff. In the case of the missing 2,000 papers, that translates into a theft of $1,100 in student fees and $752 in ad revenue, Berg said. Or would have, had the papers not been recovered.
“What we want people to know is it does cost something,” Berg said.
That’s why several student newspapers, including the University of Florida, the University of Texas and Pennsylvania State University have successfully sought criminal charges and punishment for newspaper theft.
“We hear of about 20 to 40 theft cases a year,” said Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. “And when it happens once, it is more likely to happen again if condoned or treated as a prank as opposed to the serious threat to freedom of information that it is.”
While it is unlikely that the student newspaper will seek to have anyone prosecuted, Berg said Monday she was sending an e-mail to the faculty explaining that taking the newspapers constitutes theft and infringes upon all students’ rights.
Goodman agreed. He said most newspaper staffs aren’t interested in prosecuting, but they do want the administration to take action.
Whoever was involved is fortunate the paper was recovered, said UWRF Vice Chancellor Virgil Nylander. Had the copies not been found, the paper would have had to be reprinted or the advertising money returned.
“At this point we don’t know who was involved,” he said. “If we find out who is responsible, the dean of students will talk to them.”
He declined to comment on what might be done if a faculty member were involved in the theft.