Thieves steal 6,000 copies of University of Missouri’s campus newspaper

Wednesday, September 15, 1999

Staffers of the campus newspaper at the University of Missouri-Columbia reported the theft of some 6,000 copies from stands around campus last week, citing a recent article about a missing student leader as a possible motivation.

Jake Wagman, editor of The Maneater, said the theft may have been committed by people who thought that they could stifle the story by clearing the newspaper from campus.

“They may think they are doing an act of civil disobedience but it is actually censorship in its basic form,” Wagman said. “Everyone has a right to disagree, but they shouldn't break the law. That's why we have a forum page. Talk to me or write a letter … there are many ways to disagree.”

The Sept. 3 edition of The Maneater included an article about Damon White, a Missouri student who has been missing for six months. Based on interviews with family members, the article revealed that White, a former president of the campus chapter of the Legion of Black Collegians, was homosexual and HIV positive.

The article also refers to a “John Doe,” a former boyfriend who accused White of giving him the HIV virus.

According to the article, White's family believes that “John Doe” is responsible for White's disappearance and faults several law enforcement agencies for not helping them.

Wagman said that the story created a hot debate around campus and that a number of people and groups expressed dismay over the story.

The newspaper hit the stands on Sept. 3. But over Labor Day weekend, two students were seen taking more than 200 copies from bins near The Maneater's office. By Sept. 7, about 6,000 copies had disappeared.

Although the first copy of The Maneater is free, staffers note that additional copies cost 25 cents each. Wagman estimates the newspaper lost more than $1,250 because of the theft.

But he says the theft of nearly half of the newspaper's 12,000-copy run goes beyond financial costs.

“That was only one story in the issue,” Wagman said. “We pour our hearts into these newspapers. People stay up all night to publish these newspapers. And there were a lot of freshman writers who had their first stories in that paper.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that while the incident didn't violate the First Amendment, it insulted the basic principles of a free press.

“It's the equivalent of shouting down a speaker,” Goodman said. “It's like saying, 'Because we dislike or disagree with what you're saying, we're going to silence you.' That's a very dangerous precedent because the person doing the silencing won't have a ground to stand on when someone tries to silence them.”

In a Sept. 10 editorial, The Maneater staff wrote: “The theft of newspapers might be aimed as an attack against the newspaper staff, but in reality, it is an affront to every student's right to free speech.”

Student press advocates say the theft at Missouri isn't unique.

Last spring, the campus newspaper staff at Missouri Western State College reported the theft of its newsstands. Staffers of campus newspapers at the University of Virginia and Cornell University also said copies of their free newspapers were stolen last spring.

Last year, a Louisiana state judge acquitted a former Louisiana State University student on charges of criminal property damage after he admitted torching more than 1,000 copies of a free campus newspaper.

Judge Bonnie Jackson said the copies of Tiger Weekly belonged to the student after he picked them up.

Despite that case, prosecutors have had success in winning cases against individuals taking or destroying large quantities of free newspapers, according to Student Press Law Center reports.

In 1997, three University of Kentucky students pleaded guilty to stealing 11,000 copies of Kentucky Kernel, a free student newspaper. 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.

The Maneater's Wagman says he doesn't have any idea of the identify of who might have stolen the papers “and we're not going to spend our energy trying to find out who did this. We would rather focus on future positives than past negatives.”