RADFORD — The disappearance of most of a one-day run of Radford University’s independent student newspaper is prompting questions about the timing and possible motive.
Approximately 1,000 of the total 1,500 copies of The Tartan printed Sept. 18 were gone from as many as 22 of 32 racks around the school’s campus sometime between late that afternoon and the following morning.
University police are investigating, according to the school.
The newspapers were reported to have vanished en masse hours before television journalist Katie Couric arrived on campus to moderate a political discussion. The first event of the university’s new Highlander Discovery Institute took place before a large crowd, including students, alumni, members of the school’s board of visitors and other invited guests.
The university also hosted its family weekend Sept. 20-22.
Featured on the front page of the Sept. 18 Tartan was a story on RU freshman Aris Eduardo Lobo Perez, who died in a New River Valley Regional Jail cell after university police arrested him on a public intoxication charge.
A story on the untimely death of Steve Tibbets, the recently hired chairman of the Criminal Justice Department, also appeared on the front. Tibbets reportedly died of natural causes.
A picture with that story featured Tibbets with his daughter in front of a street sign bearing their last name. The street is marked as dead end. Tartan Editor-in-Chief Dylan Lepore said administrators told him they received complaints about the appearance of a “dead end” sign in the photograph.
Lepore told The Roanoke Times that Tibbets’ wife provided the photo. He said The Tartan received no complaints about it.
Newspaper staff and advisers and school administrators met last Friday. Lepore said administrators discussed attending Tartan editorial meetings, an idea staffers rejected.
“I don’t review the student newspaper before it goes out. It’s the student newspaper,” Leigh Anne Kelley, a Radford media professor and Tartan adviser, told the Student Press Law Center in a story published online Wednesday.
Lepore said Vice President of Student Affairs Susan Trageser sent him a Sept. 19 email requesting the meeting with no clear description of what was to be discussed. He discovered that the papers were missing the same day.
Kelley said she received a similar email from Trageser. Kelley declined to comment to The Roanoke Times other than to confirm when she first received the meeting invitation.
The Student Press Law Center reported that Kelley said administrators told her complaints were not directed to The Tartan, and it struck her as odd that callers didn’t reach out to the paper first.
“I thought it was unusual to have a concern about a photo that you don’t immediately call student media and let them know. It seems like that would be a natural first step,” Kelley told the law center. “I found it unusual that the issue was addressed in a meeting that involved eight people at the university — six administrators who are at a relatively high level in the administration.”
Lepore said administrators also brought up the newspaper’s coverage of Radford student Luisa Cutting, who was charged with murdering her roommate in January.
University officials said administrators are not seeking prior review of The Tartan and they know nothing about the disappearance of the papers.
“The University does not have any information about the removal of the papers and did not orchestrate and/or participate in the removal of any newspapers,” university spokeswoman Caitlyn Scaggs wrote in an email to The Roanoke Times.
Regarding the Sept. 19 meeting, Scaggs wrote: “The University did not suggest and will not be requesting prior review of any student media, including The Tartan.”
That meeting and another on Sept. 13 focused on how the university can best support student media, Scaggs wrote.
“Those meetings have been structured to determine ways in which the University can strengthen its partnership with the student newspaper, including the offer to establish regular meetings to share University updates and pitch story ideas,” she wrote.
Lepore said he reported the missing newspapers to university police but was initially told they would not investigate because the papers are free.
The Student Press Law Center wrote that according to its guidelines, “the theft of newspapers is legally a crime, even if they’re available to students for free, because it deprives the rightful owner of their property. In the case of free newspapers, the property is knowledge and the owner is the community.”
University police are investigating at the request of The Tartan, Scaggs wrote.
Lepore also sent a Freedom of Information Request to university police for surveillance video at or near the racks. The police have said they won’t turn over surveillance until the investigation is complete, Lepore told The Roanoke Times on Thursday evening.
Tartan staffers said they are determined to find out what happened.
Camden Lazenby, president of the university’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a Tartan contributor, said he plans to distribute flyers to students asking whether they know anything.
Lepore said he’s convinced the theft could not be the act of a single culprit because there would be too much ground to cover.
“The guy that delivers them uses a golf cart from the university, so the people responsible had to have some kind of transportation or help to move all of those papers,” he said.
Scaggs said student media have the full support of the university.
“We greatly value the work and engagement of The Tartan and other student media groups. It provides an excellent learning experience and meaningful opportunities, which will undoubtedly contribute to long-term success for our students.”