Stealing newspapers is a crime -- and a form of censorship

April 18, 1994|By William J. Rizzo

WITHOUT a whole lot of fanfare, the General Assembly passed -- and Gov. William Donald Schaefer says he will sign -- a bill making it a crime to steal newspapers.

It's a good move. Angry college students have found an easy and effective way to censor their campus newspapers. They simply steal them.

Last December at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, several hundred copies of the Retriever were taken after disputes between black students and Retriever editors.

A month earlier, 10,000 copies of the Diamondback were stolen from the University of Maryland College Park. The thieves left notes accusing the paper of racism.

In September, 1,500 copies of the Johns Hopkins News-Letter were taken to protest a cartoon using the word "chink." And on the same campus three years ago, 1,600 copies of the conservative newspaper Spectator were stolen when the publication alleged Hopkins had inflated the SAT scores of blacks in an effort to admit more of them.

In each case, student editors were offended and outraged, but there was always a question whether the theft of free newspapers is criminal. Now there's no doubt.

Each of the cases was handled differently. Prince George's County authorities believed the theft of the Diamondback at College Park was a crime but had to drop their case for lack of evidence. The university, however, handed out "suspended suspensions" to the paper stealers, requiring them to stay out of trouble, perform 16 hours of community service and write a paper on a Supreme Court case involving an underground newspaper.

The response of Baltimore County state's attorney's office was the opposite. At UMBC, the police felt no crime was committed, since the Retriever, like most student newspapers, is distributed free. Three weeks later, UMBC's president, Freeman Hrabowski, issued a statement which called the thefts "unacceptable."

At Johns Hopkins, there was no investigation. The university issued a statement denouncing both the thefts and the cartoon.

In response to this confusion, the new legislation makes it a misdemeanor to steal any newspaper that's distributed free of charge. It's good to allow civil authorities to prosecute these cases. Stealing newspapers is serious business. Investigating newspaper thievery shouldn't be left exclusively to college judiciary boards and deans.

When student newspapers are stolen, even if they are free, there are serious financial implications. Advertising fees are set by the number of papers printed and distributed. Tampering with distribution can cause advertisers to lose confidence and pull out. The Hopkins News-Letter gets about 80 percent of its funds from advertising. The threat of repeated thefts can cripple.

More important, the thieves are effectively censoring the newspapers.

Mike Grossman, the editor-in-chief of the Hopkins Spectator, explained: "When you choose to write a piece that can anger a large segment of the community, the community can retaliate by stealing your product. This results in a sort of de facto censorship, whereby you have to decide if you should print that sort of material again." When the primary concern of a paper is whether what it prints will cause a heist of thousands of newspapers, the paper has been censored.

College officials haven't made a strong statement against this form of censorship. Gregg Ginsberg, the editor-in-chief of the Retriever, said UMBC's administration "fostered an atmosphere where campus groups felt they could steal newspapers without fear of punishment."

Universities and the police react strongly against other forms of censorship such as tampering with controversial research, or stealing an inflammatory manuscript. Newspaper thefts need to

be taken just as seriously.

William J. Rizzo, a student at Johns Hopkins University, is an intern in The Baltimore Sun editorial department.

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