Student body president resigns in wake of campus newspaper theft
Chris Newmarker, editor of the Ohio State University campus newspaper, had just gotten home after putting the Feb. 5 edition of The Lantern to bed when he received a curious call at 12:30 a.m. from the student body president.
Newmarker recalls Robert “B.J.” Schuerger asking if The Lantern was running a story about campus leaders spending $2,250 of student fees on a steak dinner.
An exhausted Newmarker remembers replying: “Yeah, you did something really stupid. It’s there (in the paper).”
Walking to class the next morning, Newmarker noticed numerous empty Lantern racks, none containing even a spare page of the latest edition.
“I knew something was wrong,” Newmarker said in a telephone interview. “We never had an issue that popular except when the football coach was fired. And even then, there was still a paper or two in some of the racks. “
A university investigation later determined that Schuerger and seven unnamed student government leaders lied about the money spent on limousines and steak dinners for a dozen people in December. And it also revealed that they systematically scoured the campus of 10,000 copies of the Feb. 5 edition of The Lantern, destroying nearly half of them.
But the Ohio State University incident is hardly an isolated one. According to the Student Press Law Center and Security on Campus Inc., there have been at least three other newspaper-theft incidents within the last month.
At Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, staff members of The Voice managed to recover about two-thirds of more than 2,000 copies of the Feb. 9 issue. Newspaper editors believe the thieves were upset about a photograph of emergency personnel carrying a student who collapsed and later died after playing football.
Thieves recently took about 1,000 copies of The Sunflower from racks at Wichita State University, while others at the University of North Texas stole 9,000 copies of the North Texas Daily last month.
Editors at the North Texas paper suspect the theft had to do with a story about fraternity members shouting racial epithets to a group of high school football recruits. Campus police said they wouldn’t pursue a criminal investigation because the paper is distributed for free.
A Louisiana judge took a similar view in 1998 when he threw out criminal property damage charges against a disgruntled reader who torched 1,000 copies of Louisiana State University’s Tiger Weekly. The judge said that as soon as the reader took the free papers, they were his to do with as he pleased.
“Fortunately, that one Louisiana judge seems to be in the minority,” said Michael Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center. “In the cases that have gone to court since then, we’ve been successful.”
Hiestand said that just because a campus publication is distributed for free doesn’t mean it’s a free publication. He said student fees amount to a sort of subscription charge and thus entitle each student to a newspaper.
“And you only buy one subscription,” he said. “You don’t buy a 1,000 subscriptions.”
At Ohio State, university officials placed Schuerger and the other student leaders on disciplinary probation for the rest of their undergraduate careers, meaning they can’t hold any elected or appointed office in any student organization. They also have to apologize to The Lantern, pay the paper $3,200 for lost advertising revenue and perform community service.
An apology appeared in the pages of yesterday’s Lantern, and part of the students’ community service will include painting the newspaper’s newsroom.
But some people have criticized the university for refusing to reveal the names of the students or turn the details of the theft over to local police. Daniel Carter, vice president of Security on Campus, sent an e-mail to university President William “Brit” Kirwan stating that “students need to know that they will face a criminal record rather than just a black mark on their OSU file.”
“Our concern was that any potential criminal conduct, potential fraud or actual theft was not referred to police or the prosecutors for an appropriate determination to be made,” Carter said in a telephone interview. “They just assumed no action would be taken.”
Carter, too, said the incident raises significant First Amendment concerns when students effectively eliminate an information source by trashing free newspapers.
Newmarker of The Lantern said he and his staff were concerned that the thieves wouldn’t face a court date but added that he was surprised that university officials punished the perpetrators as severely as they did.
Meanwhile, he said the next step in coverage involves snapping shots of the former student leaders painting The Lantern newsroom.
“We’re ready now for some good old-fashioned public humiliation.”
— Phillip Taylor, a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for freedomforum.org.