Campus Papers: All the News That's Fit to Steal

January 30, 1994|By THOMAS W. WALDRON

A disgruntled State University of New York security guard who was depicted as lazy.

A nervous admissions officer who was worried about offending prospective freshmen at Stevens Institute of Technology.

A professor at El Camino College in California who was removed from teaching one of his classes.

All three have something in common: anger at a student newspaper. And all three are believed to have responded by destroying large numbers of copies of the offending publication.

In the 1960s, campus protesters occupied administration buildings. In the 1970s and 1980s, the rage was campus shanties to push for divestment in South African businesses.

These days, the No. 1 target seems to be the campus newspaper, but now it's students, faculty and sometimes administrators getting involved.

The taking of student newspapers used to be a rarity. Now it's an epidemic. Large quantities of student publications were stolen at least 16 times last semester, according to the Student Press Law Center in Washington. The group recorded another 20 such thefts in the two preceding semesters.

There is no common ideological thread connecting the thefts except for a distaste for the publication.

At heavily Jewish Brandeis University, for example, about 3,000 copies of a student newspaper were taken after it published an advertisement that questioned the Holocaust.

In other cases, the motivations were more pedestrian. At Briar Cliff College in Iowa, a student whose name appeared in a newspaper account of a traffic accident is suspected of taking about three-quarters of the paper's press run.

At Southeastern Louisiana University, the president of the student government allegedly had fraternity pledges steal 2,000 copies of The Lion's Roar containing an article critical of the SGA. In a rare case where the theft went to trial, a judge recently acquitted the student.

"I think those who have characterized newspaper thefts solely as a political correctness issue really haven't seen the whole problem," said Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law Center. "What this reflects is an attitude among many on college campuses that reflects little appreciation of what a free press or free expression is all about."

Only five of the 16 thefts last semester were spurred by "insensitive" or "racist" articles. Three of those came at Maryland campuses.

At the Johns Hopkins University, the September taking of some 1,400 copies of The News-Letter was sparked by a cartoon that included the word "chink." Drawn by a student of Asian background, the cartoon was a commentary on the separatist tendencies of Hopkins' many ethnic groups.

At College Park, students took roughly 10,000 copies of The Diamondback in November, leaving notes calling it "racist."

And last month at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, black students took hundreds of copies of The Retriever as part of a prolonged standoff with editors sparked by an offensive column.

For a college president, the only thing worse than protesters stealing the campus newspaper is catching the students who did it.

At the University of Pennsylvania, former President Sheldon Hackney was ridiculed by some for failing to punish the students who took 14,000 copies of a student newspaper they branded as racist. The university did warn students, though, that anyone caught doing it again would be punished. (Dr. Hackney was eventually approved to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.)

Now two prominent Maryland campus presidents face the same dilemma.

At College Park, campus judicial officials are weighing disciplinary action against students identified in the Diamondback theft.

The case poses a problem for President William E. Kirwan, who swiftly denounced the thefts last November as an assault on freedom of the press. Now, he may feel compelled to punish students for an action that many blacks on campus applauded.

Presidents such as Dr. Kirwan must sort out how to balance the First Amendment rights of student newspapers against the rights of minority students to feel comfortable on mostly white campuses.

If you think that's easy, ask President Freeman A. Hrabowski III at UMBC, where a racial run-in between black students and the campus newspaper is now in its third month.

It began in early November when the Retriever published a column by a white student that jarred many on campus by comparing Los Angeles blacks to "savages" after the verdicts in the trial of two men in the beating of trucker Reginald O. Denny.

Black students and others blasted the newspaper at a university forum. A black professor, Acklyn Lynch, later received a death threat that many on campus concluded was related to his criticism of the newspaper.

On Dec. 14, a handful of black students grabbed stacks of the Retriever from distribution bins in the student center. An editor .. and staff photographer discovered the thefts and confronted the head of the Black Student Union, who had led the protest.

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