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Censorship by theft

Someone stole approximate­ly 1,000 copies of the Radford University student newspaper, The Tartan, on Sept. 18.

Each week, The Tartan prints 1,500 copies of the paper; it is free to students and is distributed in 22 racks all over campus.

Who was the thief? A Radford employ­ee. Radford Chief of Police David Under­wood told Editor-in-Chief Dylan Lepore on Nov. 8 that the thief who took papers from four of the racks was a low-level university employee who had been disci­plined.

The thief would not be charged crim­inally, the police chief said, because the papers were free.

There is no confirmed motive for the theft, Lepore told me. But the cover of the Sept. 18 issue had two stories involv­ing deaths of members of the Radford community. A freshman died after he was jailed for intoxication and alcohol charges. And a criminal justice professor, Steve Tibbetts, died from natural causes.

Tibbetts’ widow gave the paper a pho­to of the professor and their daughter posing in front of a street sign with their name. In the background was a sign that said, “Dead End.”

Some administrators apparently didn’t like that picture. In an email obtained by the Roanoke Times, Matthew Smith, the interim dean of the College of Human­ities and Behavioral Sciences, wrote Su­san Trageser, vice president for student affairs, “As someone who has worked with student papers, journalism and the media throughout my career, this is the singularly most insensitive editorial choice I’ve witnessed in 30 years.”

The day after the Sept. 18 issue dis­appeared at Radford, the university was kicking off a big new program, the High­lander Discovery Institute, with a panel moderated by journalist Katie Couric.

That weekend also was “Family Week­end” at the school.

Someone apparently didn’t want par­ents or attendees of the big new program to see the paper with the “Dead End” pho­tograph.

Radford has stated on several occa­sions that the administration did not di­rect the removal of the papers.

The Tartan asked the administration for the name of thief and was told it was a “personnel issue” with no additional infor­mation forthcoming. End of story.

But it’s not even close to the end, really. A number of questions remain.

The thief was a low-level employee. Was there a nod and a wink (“Nice little issue of the newspaper they published… It would be a shame if someone took all the copies…”)? Or did someone misunder­stand some statement by an administra­tor? And who took the papers from the other 18 racks?

Theft of student newspapers happens at American colleges and universities ev­ery year, according to the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group based in Arlington. There were 13 incidents in 2019, per the SPLC.

“Newspaper theft is the ultimate form of censorship,” said SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand in an SPLC post. “You don’t get much more effective than taking a newspaper so others can’t read it.”

He added that stealing newspapers not only violates the First Amendment rights of student journalists, but also the public’s right to know.

The Tartan made it clear that censor­ship by theft wouldn’t work. Lepore had an additional 800 copies of the Sept. 18 issue reprinted. He said there were no problems with theft of the reprints.

But parents weren’t on campus for a big new institute or Family Weekend by then, either.

Lepore added that The Tartan isn’t let­ting the matter go. “I honestly want to get to the bottom of this,” he said. He has been talking with the SPLC about any next steps, including possible litigation.

Good for them.

The Radford University administration has to recognize this isn’t merely a per­sonnel problem. The damage done to its student journalists – make that its stu­dent body – by the theft is real and can’t be swept under the proverbial rug. The Tartan deserves some answers.

If the Radford leaders continue to stonewall, they might as well serve notice to the world: At Radford, when studying the Bill of Rights, students should only pay attention to the Second through 10th Amendments. Don’t bother with that First one.