Last month, an estimated 2,000-3,000 copies of the Towerlight, the Towson University student newspaper, were stolen from a dozen sites on campus. University police had little trouble cracking the case, as security cameras captured the half-dozen perpetrators in the act. The information was promptly referred to the office of the Baltimore County state's attorney.
Although the newspaper is free, the suspects had apparently broken a 1994 statute that specifically prohibits the theft of free newspapers in Maryland. It is a misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $500 and imprisonment of up to 60 days or both.
But a funny thing happened on the way to District Court: The state's attorney's office declined to prosecute the unnamed suspects. Instead, the case was referred to the school's own internal judicial system — which means, of course, that the culprits are Towson students.
Why ignore the crime? John Cox, the assistant state's attorney who reviewed the case, said his reasoning was twofold. First, he believed the school's disciplinary procedures would be an adequate substitute, and the process would spare the students from having a misdemeanor criminal conviction on their records.
But second, he said he did not believe he could convict the perpetrators because the law requires that he prove that they intended to "prevent other individuals from reading the newspapers." He noted that Towson students were still able to access the newspaper online despite the theft of 20 percent to 30 percent of its printed copies.
The state's attorney's office is flat-out wrong — and appears to be advocating for the wrong Towson students. The decision not only ignores the First Amendment rights of the student journalists who publish the newspaper but tramples the rights of 20,000 Towson students to have reasonable access to that publication.
Theft is theft, and the law is the law. If students are worried about their permanent records, they ought not go around committing misdemeanors. Nor does the fact that the newspaper is available online (or perhaps in a trash bin somewhere) negate the 1994 statute.
The perpetrators would be welcome to tell a judge they stole the newspapers for some other purpose (sheer hooliganism, perhaps). But if they happen to be the subjects of an embarrassing article in that particular issue about resident advisors being forced to resign after drinking in the dorms — as Towerlight editors strongly suspect — the court would likely be skeptical.
By choosing not to prosecute, the state's attorney is teaching Towson students — and the broader community — that stealing newspapers is not regarded as a serious crime in Baltimore County. Even if the students involved are eventually punished by the university, few will ever know, as the campus judiciary operates in secret.
The Sun, admittedly, has a stake in this debate as the publisher of "b" and other free publications. But one wonders if the state's attorney would take the case more seriously if the students were found smashing laptops and smart phones to prevent e-mail from being read (a la Bridgestone Tires' "Reply all" TV ad).
Free speech, whether it is the work of Founding Fathers or aspiring student journalists, is one of this country's most important and fundamental rights. The Towson thieves trampled on that right when they stole thousands of newspapers, and the Baltimore County state's attorney office did the same when it was decided the matter wasn't worth prosecuting.