Newspaper thefts, censorship efforts, roadblocks to public records and more: A Q&A with Frank LoMonte

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Compiled by Susan Smith, media adviser at South Dakota State University


Illustration credit: Alexander Johnson, University of Illinois-Springfield.
Illustration credit: Alexander Johnson, University of Illinois-Springfield.

A record number of college newspapers were reported stolen in 2012, and while fewer have been stolen in 2013, such thefts continue, according to Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

Meanwhile, Hazelwood was cited in a case where a college refused to allow a student to student teach because of his unorthodox views, and some universities are attempting roadblocks to limit access to records that should be open.

CMR asked LoMonte for his take on such situations. (Please see sidebar for additional resources).

Theft of newspapers

Q. How many cases are you aware of in 2013 where student newspapers were stolen? What is the recourse for a student newspaper when this happens?

A. We had a record in 2012 in terms of wave after wave of newspaper thefts being reported, and thankfully the pace has diminished in 2013.

I don’t think we can read too much into a handful of incidents when you’re talking about maybe 20 or 30 known instances in a big country. It’s not like I think people in Florida are reading about people stealing newspapers in Wisconsin and are suddenly getting inspired to do it. But I do think if thefts go unpunished, then there’s every reason to believe that people locally will pick up on the fact that it’s easy to get away with destroying papers and will do it again. Conversely, if there is swift reaction by the authorities, I think that, too, will send a message and cause people to think twice the next time.

So far in 2013, we know of no more than half a dozen instances, the most recent being at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. In that instance the first summer issue of the Spinnaker was stolen from 29 of the newspaper’s 36 boxes, amounting to about 2,600 newspapers. Highway patrol officer Steven Coppola was recognized on video as one of two men stealing the newspapers. Coppola is a UNF graduate and friend of Joshua Hott. Hott was arrested on May 30 at the Lazzara Performing Arts Center. He was charged with video voyeurism after a suspect was seen videoing an 18-year-old man using the restroom.

The paper reported the charges against Hott in its June issue. The SPLC blog reported that Coppola, who admitted partial responsibility for the theft, called the newspaper and said he was worried about how the coverage would affect Hott’s younger brother who is a student at UNF.

In 2010 4,000 copies of the Spinnaker were stolen, according to the SPLC website. At the time editors were baffled as to why. There was no “gotcha” story printed in that edition, then-editor Josh Gore said. Spinnakers were stolen as a prank by the UNF cross country team in 2001.

Q. How many states treat theft of free newspapers as a crime?

A. There are only three states (California, Colorado, Maryland) that we know of with specific “no stealing free newspapers” laws on their books. But even in a state without a law that addresses newspapers, it should be possible to bring both criminal and civil legal proceedings. It’s just a matter of helping police and prosecutors understand that it is very much possible to steal something that’s meant to be given away free.

Certainly, if I have a bicycle that I’m planning to take to the Salvation Army and donate, and while I’m in the house getting my car keys someone runs away with the bike, I can report a theft and have the person arrested even though I had every intention of giving it away and even though I didn’t chain it down. If it works for bicycles, then it should work for newspapers.

I actually like using the word “destroy” instead of the word “steal.” I think police understand it better if you describe it as destruction of property since that usually is what is done. Usually, it’s not the case that the thief is planning to use the papers for personal use–they just go straight into a trash dump, which sounds more like vandalism or destruction of property than theft.

We definitely have seen criminal investigations opened where editors are persistent and where they are able to find a sympathetic ear with law enforcement.

Q. What measures could help prevent the theft of newspapers?

A. I personally think that in most cases, criminal prosecution is a bit of overkill, and the right response is some combination of disciplinary action and financial repayment. I really like the strong message that Central Connecticut State University sent last year when members of the soccer coaching staff were caught destroying papers. They imposed harsh financial penalties and suspended the head coach without pay, and that I’m sure sent a message every bit as effective as jail time. (More here: http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2379)

I’m sympathetic that, especially where the thief is a student, you don’t necessarily want to be sending people to jail for getting carried away with a prank, particularly one where an impressionable kid might be acting at the direction of his superiors in student government or a fraternity.

If you are going the route of financial repayment, you of course want to keep track of how many papers you think you’ve lost and tally up what that is worth in replacement cost. Often, the people doing the stealing are only too happy to repay the money if the alternative is a criminal record, so the criminal prosecution can end up being a bargaining chip to resolve the situation.

Remember that many campuses now have surveillance cameras pointed at high-traffic public areas, so it’s entirely possible to “solve your own crime” by getting copies of those surveillance tapes if you act very promptly, since many of them are on an erasure cycle of just a few days.

Censorship and newspaper closure

Q.  How often does SPLC hear about college newspapers such as the one at Florida A&M being shut down and/or suspended because of content?

A.  FAMU was really quite extraordinary, and disturbing, because the adverse action came directly from the journalism school itself. We see probably once or twice a year an overreaction from administrators that at least temporarily leads to stopping the presses or pulling the plug on the website, but those instances thankfully are rare and almost always quickly resolved.

What made FAMU so extraordinary is that, to this day, everyone involved is in denial that anything wrong was done and no one has ever apologized or been held accountable. To shut down a newspaper for weeks at a time because, in the subjective judgment of a government official, the journalists need more “training” is really quite an alarming concept that flies in the face of foundational First Amendment principles.

I think the only comparable incident in recent memory is the situation at Central New Mexico Community College, where administrators declared they were closing down a community college newspaper and even reconsidering overhauling the entire journalism program after the students published a “sex issue” that offended some members of the community. In that case, as in most cases of censorship at the college level, the administration very quickly came to recognize that it had lost public legitimacy and wasn’t standing on the high ground, and reversed course. (More here: http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2553)

Q. What tools/defenses should student journalists have in such situations?

A. Students need to find ways to engage the public and, if the standoff is a prolonged one, to keep capturing the public’s attention and not let the issue fall off the radar. As we saw at FAMU, censorship is almost always driven by a college’s compulsion to project a positive image, and if the college recognizes that the censorship will itself do significant, lasting damage to the school’s reputation, then maybe the risk-reward calculation changes.

I think we had the unique situation at FAMU that the school’s reputation was already so battered by the hazing scandal and a number of other scandals that being nationally known for disrespecting students’ First Amendment rights wasn’t even the worst thing to happen all week.

We had a much more successful resolution at the University of Memphis last year, where the students were facing some truly outrageous acts of retaliation up to and including trumped-up criminal charges that the campus police attempted to press against the top editors of The Helmsman. In that instance, what made all the difference was a determined and vocal base of support from among alumni and from within the journalism school itself, where people stood up at great professional risk and denounced what the college administration was doing as wrong. The editors were cleared of all charges and a retaliatory funding cut was restored, and that’s because ultimately the college realized its actions were both legally indefensible and were going to inflict potentially years of lasting reputational damage.

My advice to college editors is, don’t take censorship lying down, but don’t fight the battle alone–identify allies in the campus community, in the news media, in the alumni base and anywhere else you can bring pressure to bear on the institution.

Access to public records

Q. What are the three to five most significant cases affecting student media in the last six months?

A. We have not really had any “press freedom” issues go to court in recent months. The most significant developments have been ones involving access to records:

  • Two state courts in Louisiana reached split rulings on the same issue: Can Louisiana State University refuse to release the names of candidates considered for the presidency of a public university? The law seems clearly to require disclosure, but LSU has been playing word-games by pretending that “candidates” are not really “candidates” even though they agree to be placed in consideration for the presidency, which certainly seems (in everything but nomenclature) to make you a “candidate.”

Closed-door presidential searches are really becoming epidemic, and they’re contributing directly to a culture of contempt for public disclosure. We need to fight back at every opportunity against taking these critical decisions off the public record. I feel confident that ultimately the courts in Louisiana, and throughout the country, will faithfully apply the law and give the public the access it deserves.

  • The state Supreme Court in North Carolina actually reached a very important non-decision in March on a legal question of significant national importance: Must police at a private university obey the state public-records act when they are exercising state law enforcement authority?

In that case, Ochsner v. Elon University, the state Supreme Court deadlocked 3- 3, which had the result of nullifying a very bad lower-court ruling that exempted private universities from compliance with the public records act, even when performing the traditional governmental function of arresting people. The North Carolina legislature, responding to the Ochsner case, enacted House Bill 142, which the governor signed into law, making North Carolina the third state (after Georgia and Virginia) to impose public disclosure requirements on police at private colleges

It only makes sense that if you are going to ask the state to let you exercise the greatest of all state powers–the power to take away people’s freedom and even use deadly force against them– that you accept the oversight that goes with state authority. We want to see Ochsner-type legislation in every state. and we’re going to be looking for other test cases to bring elsewhere.


Q. This is the 25th anniversary of the Hazelwood ruling. Does that case continue to carry the highest impact to student media?

A. We continue to watch with alarm as courts impose the Hazelwood standard on student speakers at the college level.

There have been a number of cases in recent years in which courts have simply assumed there is no difference between the proper level of control that a K-12 school should be able to exercise versus the level of control appropriate at the postsecondary level. There was yet another of these rulings, from a district court in Hawaii in May, which decided that a college of education could exercise the Hazelwood level of authority over a student who was expelled from the program for expressing unorthodox views.

The student in that case was rather unsympathetic. It’s possible the college ultimately made the right call in refusing to let him student-teach, but it was unnecessary to rely on Hazelwood to reach that result. When it becomes assumed without question that Hazelwood is the right legal standard for colleges’ authority over their students’ speech, it will be a much more dangerous world for journalists.

 

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