Pilfered papers: If a crime, what punishment?

January 05, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

Authorities on two University of Maryland campuses, as well as state legislators, face troubling decisions about whether to punish people who seize quantities of free newspapers and prevent others from reading them.

At both the Baltimore County and College Park campuses, authorities say they have identified protesters who took student newspapers last semester.

At College Park, university police turned over to the Prince George's County state's attorney's office this week the names of suspects in the taking of about 10,000 copies of the Diamondback student newspaper in November. According to signs left in empty newspaper bins, the action was a protest of the newspaper's supposed racist nature.

The university will consider administrative sanctions later, a spokesman said yesterday.

At UMBC, administrators received a demand this week from an attorney for the Retriever newspaper to punish a handful of students caught taking hundreds of copies of the newspaper Dec. 14 in what has been described as a protest against its practices and content.

Copies of the Johns Hopkins University student newspaper were also taken last semester, although those involved have not been identified.

Nationally, the theft of student newspapers has become commonplace. In the last year and a half, thefts involving 36 student newspapers were reported to the Student Press Law Center, a campus newspaper advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

The center's records show that culprits are rarely caught or punished in the courts. Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the center, said he knew of only one case in which someone was successfully prosecuted for taking free newspapers. In that one, several students were convicted of stealing a conservative campus publication at the University of Florida, Mr. Hiestand said.

In the UMBC newspaper theft, officials have declined to discipline the protesters, whose action came in the midst of a feud between black students and the Retriever's editors. The university would prefer that the newspaper and the Black Student Union become more "responsive" to each other, said campus spokeswoman Louise White.

Yesterday, Jay Livingston, executive editor of the Retriever, criticized UMBC's posture.

"It so happens that the environment that the administration has been largely responsible for setting up at UMBC is conducive to activities such as mass confiscations of newspapers," Mr. Livingston said. "I would think at least they would censure this sort of activity."

"The university is fully supportive of the First Amendment," Ms. White said. "We also want to have a newspaper that is responsive to the diverse population we have here."

Two state lawmakers who say they are disturbed that such thefts are never brought to the courts are preparing legislation that would make it illegal to steal free publications such as the Retriever.

The bill is expected to be introduced in the General Assembly session that begins next week.

The Baltimore County state's attorney's office has declined to prosecute the students who removed copies of the Retriever, concluding that it's not illegal to take something with no tangible value.

State Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, though, said such takings should be illegal.

"This is denying others the ability to read what others have written," said Mr. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore. "If you have an objection, you can picket the newspaper offices, you can write a letter to the editor, you can urge a boycott. But none of those prevents someone else from reading what the newspaper has published."

In a similar case, officials with the Washington Blade, a gay weekly, identified last year a man who twice took about 70 copies of the paper from the Montgomery County library in Wheaton.

Representatives of the Blade filed a criminal complaint against the 58-year-old Rockville man, but the Montgomery County state's attorney's office dropped the charge, concluding that the man's actions were not illegal.

In the UMBC case, employees of the Retriever caught the head of the Black Student Union and other students taking copies into the BSU's campus office.

BSU President Ken Wright said in an interview that he and other students removed no more than 150 copies of the newspaper -- out of a total of 4,500 distributed. A photograph taken by a Retriever staffer, though, shows what appears to be several hundred copies of the paper in the BSU office.

Mr. Wright said he was protesting the Retriever's editorial policies and the attitudes of its managers.

In particular, he cited a T-shirt worn the day before the incident by a Retriever staff member that read: "I've Been Lynched."

The T-shirt was a reference to UMBC professor Acklyn Lynch. He had harshly criticized a Retriever column written in November by a white student after verdicts in the trial of two men involved in the beating of trucker Reginald Denny. The column compared Los Angeles blacks to "savages."

Dr. Lynch later received a phoned death threat that many on campus believe was linked to his criticism of the newspaper.

The T-shirt "was like a step back, when I thought progress was being made," Mr. Wright said. Retriever editors, he added, think "they're above any kind of reaction from the students."

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