Judge acquits former student of torching newspapers

Wednesday, June 17, 1998

A Louisiana judge acquitted a former student on charges of criminal property damage recently, although the student admitted to burning about 1,000 copies of a free campus newspaper.

Joe Alfone, a former student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, told the court that he burned copies of the Sept. 25 edition of Tiger Weekly, a student newspaper, because of an article that “took him out of context.”

Police arrested Alfone and charged him with criminal property damage and criminal mischief.

But state District Judge Bonnie Jackson said the newspaper belonged to no one but Alfone after he picked up multiple copies.

“If somebody throws fliers in somebody's yard, and that person picks them up and burns them, do they belong to the thrower or to that person picking them up?” Jackson wrote in her decision.

Tiger Weekly staffers criticized the ruling, saying Alfone violated their free-press rights by taking as many copies as he did. Staffers had distributed about 12,000 copies of the newspaper around the LSU campus.

Editor Wayne Lewis said Alfone was upset about a question-and-answer column that he felt portrayed him as a “big, dumb hippie.” Editors at the Tiger Weekly said they haven't decided whether to appeal the decision.

Tom Rolnicki, executive director of the Associated Collegiate Press, said whatever statement Alfone tried to make doesn't mean he could take as many copies as he wanted.

“I think that's erroneous thinking,” Rolnicki said. “There should never be a supposition that any more than one copy or maybe even two copies of a newspaper, even if it's a free distribution, belongs to a student who picks it up. This is clearly a case of someone denying access of copies for 999 other people.”

Rolnicki said he hopes such an incident doesn't become a trend.

“We have seen this kind of confiscation and attempts of censorship before,” he said. “It really is a crime even if it's a free distribution.”

According to Student Press Law Center reports, an unknown individual took more than 2,500 copies of the Chicago Weekly last month from distribution bins at the University of Chicago. Student editors have asked the administration to reimburse the newspaper for reprinting costs of the free campus newspaper.

Center reports, too, show that prosecutors have been successful in winning cases against individuals taking or destroying large quantities of free newspapers.

Last year, three University of Kentucky students pleaded guilty to stealing 11,000 copies of the free student newspaper Kentucky Kernel. In Austin, Texas, a court gave a man six months' probation after he entered a guilty plea to a charge of theft. The man was charged with stealing copies of the University of Texas' free campus newspaper, the Daily Texan.