Newspaper burning at Goucher College focus of county, school police investigation

Editors believe coverage prompted the incident

March 13, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County and Goucher College police are investigating the destruction of several hundred copies of the campus newspaper, an incident editors say might have been sparked by recent coverage.

"I'm sure this wasn't just an act of vandalism," said Bryan Fisher, editor-in-chief of the Quindecim. "There were quite a lot of controversial topics in our last issue. It might have been anything in an article or an ad that touched a nerve with someone."

Stacks of the free bimonthly student publication were set on fire on a concrete staircase near Heubeck Hall, a dormitory, about 3: 55 a.m. Feb. 24. Police have no suspects and know of no motive.

Copies of the Q, as the newspaper is known, were discovered missing Feb. 23 from stacks outside the newspaper office and bins in Pearlstone Student Center, Fisher said. About 1,000 copies of the newspaper are printed for each press run.

The next day, the charred Qs were discovered by a student, according to a campuswide e-mail sent by newspaper adviser Deidre W. Hill, who is also Goucher's associate director of communications. The e-mail said residents of the dormitory would be interviewed as part of the investigation.

Hill said the incident was being treated as a malicious burning case.

"It's obviously something we're taking seriously," Hill said. "If the person who did this is found, they could be prosecuted."

In the past few years, as many as 20 incidents of newspaper theft a year have been reported at college campuses across the country, according to the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

In the past six months, thousands of newspapers have been stolen at the University of Missouri, California State University at Sacramento and Brigham Young University.

At their peak, about 40 such thefts were reported at campuses across the country in 1993 and 1994, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the center. Three of those incidents occurred at three Maryland colleges -- the College Park and Baltimore County campuses of the University of Maryland, and the Johns Hopkins University -- when students were angered by articles or viewpoints printed in the papers.

Those incidents prompted Maryland legislators to enact a law in May 1994 making it a criminal offense to steal free publications -- the only state law of its kind in the country, Goodman said.

"We haven't heard of any campus newspaper thefts in Maryland in quite some time," Goodman said. "When the taking of free newspapers is not protected by law, we're basically saying that free newspapers cannot exist unless they can pay for guards to prevent theft. College newspapers are especially vulnerable when they cover painful or unpleasant issues on campus.

"But to allow this to happen poses a threat to free expression on campus," Goodman said.

The Feb. 23 issue of the Q contained a number of stories that some might have viewed as objectionable, said features editor Jennifer Trentowski.

One article dealt with same-sex marriages. Another dealt with part-time professors who face possible termination. A front-page article documented the eighth student to resign from the Student Government Association's executive board, which continues a series of hard-hitting articles the paper has written on the organization's problems.

Although a county police spokesman said the arson squad does not know of a motive in the burning of the papers, editors of the Q believe the theft might have been prompted by articles the staff had written about turmoil within the SGA. The articles prompted several complaints by students, they said.

Q editors said threats have never been made against the paper or staff. However, the theft and burning have made at least one editor rethink the way the newspaper will handle future coverage.

"I think every time anything like this happens, we always have to reassess how we look at issues," said Fisher, who has been editor of the Q since April 1998. "Sometimes, it makes us feel that we need to be more restrained. It doesn't mean that we'll stop looking into controversial issues, but it might mean that we are more reluctant to publicize issues that are seen as controversial."

But Trentowski said the incident will have no effect on news judgment.

"We're there to inform the community," she said. "If we start censoring what we're doing because people will get angry, then that defeats the purpose."

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