by Mallory Culhane
Stealing free student newspapers sounds like no big deal – or something that’s not even possible – but it is.
On Thursday, Oct. 24, The Minaret published its seventh issue of the semester, which featured an article of an on-campus armed robbery on the cover. That day, Sydney Rhodes, editor-in-chief of The Minaret, set the papers out on the newsstands around campus.
“On Monday, Oct. 28, I noticed that all of the papers were gone from our Plant Hall stand…at first, I was like ‘yay a lot of our readers picked up the paper this week,’” said Rhodes. She placed a new stack on the stand later that day.
The following day on Tuesday night, Rhodes left The Minaret office around 10 to 11 p.m. and noticed at least 100 copies at the newsstand on the second floor of Vaughn. The following morning between 8 and 9 a.m. when Rhodes returned, the stand was empty.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really weird this is the second time that all of our papers have been picked up,’ which is very unusual,” said Rhodes. “Usually we don’t have any stands that go completely empty throughout the week and I thought there was a correlation to the Plant Hall stand.”
Rhodes made her way down to the first floor of Vaughn and the stand there was empty too. From there, Rhodes knew that the papers had deliberately been removed, likely because of the cover story that week, being a campus armed robbery.
Still, Rhodes backs the decision to publish the story.
“Our job as journalists and working for the student newspaper is to find the news that occurs on campus or within the Tampa community and report on it…I would 100% run it again,” said Rhodes.
On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Rhodes filed a formal report with Campus Safety.
This isn’t the first time papers have been removed from newsstands on campus. In 2016, The Minaret ran a story covering sexual assault within Greek life at the University of South Florida. Stacks of papers started to go missing after they were set out on racks.
“The staff of The Minaret pour hours of hard work each week into reporting for and designing each edition of the paper to keep students and faculty on UT’s campus informed,” said Tess Sheets, the editor-in-chief of The Minaret at the time. “It’s sad to see that someone on campus doesn’t value that. When this same thing happened in 2016, it felt like we were being silenced.”
Campus Safety was able to identify male subjects taking stacks of newspapers from the first floor of Vaughn through video surveillance in 2016, who later turned themselves in.
“I hope whoever is responsible in this case will do the right thing and come forward,” said Sheets.
However, the theft this year hasn’t had the same outcome thus far.
“We’ve tried to look at the [stands] from different cameras and different angles, however, the cameras do not capture that particular area where the newsstands are,” said Samuel Ponce, assistant director of Campus Safety. “Without any evidence of who committed this theft, we cannot charge anyone.”
Ponce stated that if new evidence comes to light – such as eyewitnesses – Campus Safety would proceed with theft charges.
“Tampa Police Department may not arrest the person responsible for theft because the newspapers are free and in a public area,” said Ponce. “However, the university may issue disciplinary sanctions.”
Although the papers are free of charge to anyone on campus, The Minaret spends roughly $1,000 a week to print the physical newspaper. In addition to monetary cost, The Minaret staff, between writers and editors, spend several hours each week to report, write, and layout to produce a paper.
“The Minaret is student run so between the students who write for the newspaper, edit stories, layout the papers, the students who work with publishing – everything is completely student run,” said Rhodes. “We work for hours every week just to publish a couple stories, so to see that taken away is very sad.”
The issue of student newspaper theft due to controversial stories is nothing new. The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) publishes data each year on the number of newspaper theft incidents and copies taken. Although newspaper theft on college campuses has largely gone down in the last 19 years, they still happen.
In the week of Sept. 15, all but three bins holding copies of Florida Atlantic University’s student paper, the University Press, were emptied and thrown in the trash. The week’s cover story was of rape allegations made on FAU’s quarterback. That same week, about 1,000 copies of Radford University’s, The Tartan, were taken from newsstands that featured stories of the deaths of a department chair and RU freshman on the cover
Two states – Maryland and California – have laws in place that categorize the theft of free newspapers as a crime. Still, many journalists argue that taking away an entire stack of newspapers from a rack is not only a crime due to factors like printing costs, but is a form of censorship.
“People who steal papers are trying to act as amateur censors,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. “When newspapers don’t reach the intended audience, it’s a loss not just to the publication but the entire community. It shows disregard…for the role of an editorially independent voice in the community.”
Many argue that stealing free newspapers is impossible because there’s no price tag on the paper. LoMonte compares this to a situation in a soup kitchen for the homeless: “Imagine if you went into the homeless shelter where they’re giving out free winter coats for the poor, and you grabbed up all of the coats and ran out the door,” said LoMonte. “That’s definitely stealing and you’ll definitely be arrested and prosecuted for theft, even though the coats were meant to be given away free.”
SPLC has reported that in 2018, there were eight incidents of student newspaper thefts reported to SPLC, which marked a four-year high. Incidents this year already surpassed last year’s number back in June.
Though it’s the age of online media, removing large sums of papers in any community without consequences can be a threat to the life of a free press. Particularly in a private university setting, like UT, it’s critical for the community to have that independent news source.
“I want to make the UT population aware that it’s not okay to take these newspapers 100 or more copies at a time…doing so restricts The Minaret’s right to freedom of the press,” said Rhodes.
Mallory Culhane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org