Theft as censorship: Why stealing “free” newspapers makes no sense

The University Press at Florida Atlantic University led this week’s issue with a blockbuster of a story: The quarterback of the football team had been accused of sexual battery and the university appeared to have botched the investigation. The piece is a detailed and winding narrative that includes an interview with the person accusing Chris Robison, a deep dive into federal law and some incredible storytelling from top to bottom.

Apparently, someone (or multiple someones) didn’t think people should see this, as the staff soon noticed its newspaper bins were empty and piles of the paper had been dumped in the trash. The paper, in kind of tongue-in-cheek move, wrote a thank-you note to the thief or thieves, noting that the move had drawn more attention to the situation than anything the paper itself could have done.

The UP’s editorial noted that this wasn’t the first case of censorship via theft of the paper. It lists about a half-dozen instances in which someone thought the UP wasn’t being positive enough in its coverage and decided to dump the print edition in the trash. This also isn’t the only case of censorship by theft of college or high school newspapers out there. The Student Press Law Center keeps track of these kinds of things and lists dozens of them on its website.

(As an adviser back at Ball State, I saw this kind of thing up close, when we ran a story about the women’s soccer player getting arrested, only to find out that about one-third of our print run had gone missing. Although no one was ever caught, people who saw the folks taking the papers told us they were women, dressed in black Ball State athletic department gear.)

Frank LoMonte, a legal eagle and long-time Student Press Law Center leader, explains in the UP’s editorial that this kind of thing is illegal. LoMonte gave an example of how something can be entirely free (soup at a homeless shelter’s soup kitchen) but its inappropriate use (you pouring it down the sewer) can lead to legal concerns.

Most publications list something in the masthead of the paper, noting that the first copy is free, but additional copies are a quarter or 50 cents. This establishes a value for them in case of just such an incident. In most cases, if you grab a half dozen of them because you wrote an article and want to send one home so grandma can put it up on the fridge, the paper isn’t coming after you. However, when you take them all to deprive others of their right to see the content (including advertising, which financially drives most papers), that’s where the publication gets edgy about this.

In other words, it is possible to steal something that’s free.

Even if it weren’t, censorship by theft is a patently stupid idea for three key reasons:

  • The internet still exists: Taking all the print copies of a paper and destroying them to prevent people from seeing the content makes as much sense as covering your eyes so that other people can’t see you. It doesn’t work.
    The print product, as those of us in student media have been told repeatedly, isn’t where most of our readers live. They live online, so they will see the story much in the same way you did: Someone posts/shares it on a site you read or via social media. You click the link and there it is.
    Unless these censors have a way of hacking your website and taking down the story there, all they have done is overload the trash bins at the university.
  • Censorship draws attention: When someone destroys content is to prevent people from seeing it, all they have really done is make people want to see it more. Truth be told, I never would have seen this story had someone not tried to censor it. Once the person or people destroyed the papers, the UP called them out, the message went viral (at least in my circles) and I suddenly became more interested in what was going on.
    Like anything else we try to keep people from seeing, the harder we try to prevent access, the more people want it. Think about every argument pertaining to limiting access to pornography and you get the right idea here: If someone doesn’t want me to see it, it must be AMAZING!!!
    Now, instead of only a few people on campus finding out about this, and maybe a few folks in disparate patches of readership across the country, TONS of people are finding out who Chris Robison is, what he was accused of and what FAU did in response. The result was akin to trying to extinguish a fire with a bucket of gasoline.
  • Never pick a fight with people who buy data by the terabyte: It’s a bit of poetic license on the old line about challenging the press: Never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. Still, the point holds water. Journalists are much better at putting out content than most people are at censoring it.
    When we had the situation at Ball State, rather than cower in a corner and worry that we had offended people, we actually reran the entire edition of the paper as an insert to the next day’s edition. In the main paper, we wrote an editorial to the people who tried to censor us: “Nice Try. We’re Still Here.” We then promised that if THIS edition went missing, we’d run BOTH papers as inserts the next day and continue until either they stopped or we went bankrupt. The thefts did not reoccur.
    The point is, journalists are essentially stubborn, principled and generally unrelenting. We’re like a dog with Frisbee: We don’t let go. When you decide to come after us, we tend to decide that this is the hill we’re going to die on. Even more, we have connections to other journalists who have chewed the same dirt we have at student media. These people might be “grown ups” now, but they remember what it was like to be picked on and abused back in the day. They, too, have the pitbull personality and are going to stand with these folks. In a game of, “You bring your friends and I’ll bring mine and we’ll see who wins,” journalists are always going to win in this situation.


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