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SPOTLIGHT
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Theft was wrong -- response was right

Published on -10/25/2013, 9:39 AM

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When does a blatant, criminal act of outright theft produce a good result -- and an educational experience as well -- in terms of the First Amendment?

Apparently, such good result came about at Concordia College, a liberal arts college of 2,500 students, in Moorehead, Minn., just across the Red River from Fargo, N.D. Even though as a private school it's not subject to those 45 words in the manner of a public institution, administrators clearly stand behind a free press.

First, the facts: On Oct. 17, the student newspaper The Concordian published a thoughtful article about many students' flagrant consumption of alcohol before dances on the "dry" campus.

A day later, officials acknowledged, a staffer from the college admissions office removed all copies of the edition from the campus center building -- just prior to a tour by prospective students and their parents.

Theft of campus newspapers en masse is an ongoing national travesty, but thus far this year in decline. In 2012, the Student Press Law Center logged 27 such crimes at campus across the nation; this year, only six. But that's six too many. Stealing such newspapers off campus racks is a crime. Even when the newspapers are available without charge, they have monetary value.

In most cases, businesses and others have paid for advertisements.

Money has been spent on printing and distribution. Faculty, staff and students are denied access to information. And then there's the reality that the First Amendment protects the journalism from newsgathering to news racks.

There is no "student exception" in those 45 words that start the Bill of Rights.

Far too often, colleges have treated the theft of student newspapers as just another harmless "prank" or, worse, seen confiscation as a legitimate means of protecting the school's image, fund-raising efforts, or trustee egos from what they deem to be unflattering news.

Thankfully, at Concordia, those in charge are also in-touch, both with the law and a respect for legitimate news reporting -- even when it stings. In a bit of irony, the report's focus was on students who made no secret of their dislike of going to dances to find other students intoxicated. Those touring parents likely would have found the subject matter less of a surprise than the strong student criticism of pre-party drinking.

In any event, administrators reacted quickly and properly to news that some 400 copies -- about one third of the paper's total circulation -- had been snatched from the center's racks by a school employee. The papers were returned within hours.

Steve Schuetz, vice president for enrollment, told the online news outlet the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead that confiscation of the newspaper wasn't a "coordinated effort" by his office. The Forum reported that Schuetz apologized to the Concordian staff, and that he "has had multiple discussions with the unnamed staff member responsible."

For its part, the Concordian used the incident to educate readers, via a well-worded editorial titled "An Unacceptable Silencing."

News editor Emma Connell wrote the paper held the admissions office responsible for its staffer's actions and decried any attempt to present "a rose-colored view of Concordia than to allow the students to present the truth through a body of work they spent valuable time creating."

"Newspapers, at their core, exemplify democratic ideals," Connell wrote. "Those who are governed deserve to have access to information about the system in which they operate. Students have a right to know what their peers are doing and saying, what goals the administration has for the college and any pressing concerns that have arisen."

As it happens, the college's mission statement has as its first principle the "freedom to search for truth, with nothing off limits for inquiry and critique."

Stealing newspapers in bulk to hide an unflattering story -- if only for a few hours, in this instance -- is contrary to that mission, and to the First Amendment.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Washington-based Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute's First Amendment Center. gpolicinski@newseum.org

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