Radford University chose not to keep video from some buildings where free student newspapers went missing in September without an explanation for who took them.
That video, university spokeswoman Caitlyn Scaggs said, “was mainly focused on entry and exit points and other main thoroughfares” rather than on newspaper racks.
“Therefore,” Scaggs wrote, “the footage was not retained in the RUPD files in accordance with standard operating procedure.”
Officials retained video showing papers removed from four racks, Scaggs said. A classified university employee admitted taking those papers and “also disclosed to acting alone,” but denied removing copies from 18 additional racks on or near campus, Scaggs said. How many papers the employee took remains unclear.
Video was available from some of the locations but not retained, Scaggs said.
Dylan Lepore, editor of The Tartan, discovered the missing papers the morning after their Sept. 18 distribution and requested that school police investigate. A letter Friday from police to Lepore advised that the classified employee was responsible for the removal of papers from four racks. There was no explanation for the remaining missing papers.
Authorities concluded their investigation the same day the letter went to Lepore, Scaggs said.
The incident prompted questions due to the timing of the newspapers’ disappearance — just hours before a high profile campus event moderated by journalist Katie Couric and with administrators raising concerns about a front-page photo. Couric was paid $195,000 from private donations and university activity fees.
The school refused to provide video used to help catch the employee it said is responsible for removing the papers, citing the footage as exempted from release under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
Lepore discovered the missing papers the morning after a fellow student distributed them to racks on or near campus.
When asked for video from the remaining locations, Scaggs said it no longer existed. Scaggs said the school’s normal procedure is to retain video for 30 days.
“The footage showing the removal of the papers was retained and placed in the employee’s personnel file,” Scaggs wrote.
Under the state’s open records act, The Roanoke Times and The Tartan both requested video from the buildings where Lepore said papers went missing.
The disappearance of an estimated 1,000 of 1,500 copies of that September Tartan edition has attracted national coverage, and came amid a flurry of campus events that included the Sept. 10 death of new Criminal Justice Department Chairman Stephen Tibbetts, and two days later, the death of freshman Aris Eduardo Lobo-Perez after he was jailed on intoxication and alcohol charges.
Both deaths were covered in the edition of The Tartan that disappeared. A photo on the cover depicted Tibbetts and his daughter in front of a street sign bearing their last name. The street is marked as a dead end. That upset administrators. Tartan staffers said Tibbetts’ widow provided the photo.
Matthew Smith, the interim dean of the college that includes criminal justice, emailed university Vice President for Student Affairs Susan Trageser on Sept. 20 about the photo.
“I just got a paper copy of the Tartan and am outraged by what I see on the front page. As someone who has worked with student papers, journalism, and media throughout my career, this is the singularly most insensitive editorial choice I’ve witnessed in 30 years,” Smith wrote.
University President Brian Hemphill also said he was disappointed by The Tartan’s decision to use the photo but he also understands the importance of a free press. The university has stated on multiple occasions that the administration did not direct the removal of the papers.
While there was no criminal charge, the worker found to have taken some of the newspapers committed a “Group II offense” under the state employees’ disciplinary policy, according to the letter from university police.
Penalties for a first Group II offense can range up to a 10-day suspension, and repeat offenses can lead to firing, according to a copy of the policy provided Saturday by Scaggs.
University police wrote in their letter to Lepore that it consulted with the state Attorney General’s Office and the local prosecutor. Both determined that since the papers were free it was not a crime to take them.
Radford City Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Rehak concluded no law was broken. Larceny is taking something of value that belongs to somebody else without the owner’s permission.
When The Tartan placed its newspapers in public for free “without restriction or limitation,” its ownership of them ended, Rehak said by email. It was understood that the public had the paper’s permission to take them, he said.
Stated another way, the paper offered its edition for free “and someone (or a group) took them up on the offer,” the prosecutor wrote.
“This conundrum begs the questions: Can a citizen take two papers or a few extra copies for grandparents? What about taking enough for the whole fraternity or a copy for each member of a sports team? Pondering those issues exposes the dilemma, danger and public policy challenges of trying to uncover a crime where one simply does not exist.”
Darryl Brown, a professor of criminal law at the University of Virginia, agreed that the copies being free “is probably a good enough reason for the police and prosecutors not to want to pursue charges even if nothing else held them back.”
A news company could argue that placing its free newspaper on news racks is distribution and not abandonment of its property interests, Brown said by email, adding, that that view “seems intuitively right to me.”
But he was unaware of a clear legal basis for it.
The Student Press Law Center offers another viewpoint.
“Newspaper theft is a crime,” the Washington-based nonprofit said in a web report. “Even in the online/digital age, theft of physical newspapers continues to be a blunt attempt at censorship. Each year student publications across the country fall victim to thieves whose intent is to prevent the dissemination of news, information and opinion with which they disagree.”
Some states have criminal laws against taking multiple copies of free newspapers without authorization. California’s law deems it petty theft that “impoverishes the marketplace of ideas.” The student press center has received many reports of thefts of free student newspapers and knows of successful prosecutions, according to its website.
No Virginia law specifically criminalizes taking multiple copies of free newspapers.
Scaggs said via an e-mail message that none of the missing newspapers were found and that their status remains “unknown.”
“The classified staff member is an active employee,” Scaggs also said in response to a question about the person’s job status.