Something doesn’t feel right here. And by here, we mean Radford University.
Let’s review what we know in the case of the missing student newspapers and then pose some questions we haven’t seen asked.
The Sept. 18 issue of The Tartan had a cover story about the death of Steve Tibbetts, chairman of the school’s Criminal Justice Department. The photo showed Tibbetts and his daughter standing in front of a street sign bearing their name — along with another sign that said “dead end.” Some Radford administrators — including President Brian Hemphill — weren’t pleased with the photo. One administrator emailed a colleague that the photo was “tasteless.” Another said he was “outraged” and found it “the singularly most insensitive editorial choice I’ve witnessed in 30 years.” Hemphill found the photo “a disappointment.”
Now, here’s where things become more complicated: The photo in question was supplied by Tibbets’ widow. She said her daughter loved the photo and the family saw nothing wrong with it. She later emailed the reporter who wrote the story to say about the photo: “If you knew my husband … he would’ve found that funny.”
Of course, others who saw the newspaper couldn’t have known that at the time. Different people see things different ways and it’s natural to look at a photo of someone recently deceased — with a “dead end” sign in the background — and think that’s not in the best of taste. Let’s give Hemphill and other Radford administrators credit for being sensitive to what they believed would be the family’s concern — even if it wasn’t.
There also was another difficult story in that edition of The Tartan — that one about the death of a Radford University freshman after he was jailed on intoxication and alcohol charges.
We also know that the newspaper was published just hours before a high-profile university event — journalist Katie Couric moderating a discussion between two national political figures.
Finally, we also know that soon after they were delivered, some 1,000 of the paper’s 1,500 copies quickly disappeared from as many as 22 of the 32 racks around campus.
Who took the papers? And why? And was this a crime?
We can answer the last question most easily: Radford University police consulted with both the state attorney general’s office and the city prosecutor. Both concluded taking the newspapers wasn’t a crime because the papers were free. The rationale: You can’t steal something that’s free — even if you take all of them. The Student Press Law Center, a non-profit in Washington, D.C., disagrees; Students have paid for the paper through their student fees so technically the paper isn’t really free, simply pre-paid. However, the center’s not the one in charge of making that determination — the prosecutor is. And he says it’s not a crime.
Still, whether it’s crime or not, scooping up all these papers certainly seems like an attempt to prevent students from reading what’s in them. That’s why this issue attracts attention well beyond the Radford campus. The obvious question: Did university administrators — unhappy with the Sept. 18 issue of the student newspaper — effectively seize them? The university says no, but it’s a natural thing to wonder.
After an investigation, Radford says it determined that a “classified staff employee” — meaning not an administrator or a professor — took papers from four of the 18 newsstands that were emptied. That employee will be disciplined, the university says, but won’t say how. The offense was categorized as a “Group II” offense, which university policy says can be punished by a suspension of up to 10 days. The key phrase there, of course, is “up to,” because it’s possible the employee wasn’t suspended at all. Radford won’t say much more, calling this a personnel issue that it’s not required to divulge. Indeed, the university has put the surveillance video it used to identify the employee in that worker’s personnel file, which shields it from the Freedom of Information Act.
And that’s where the questions really begin.
1. The university hasn’t said what the employee’s motive was in taking the papers. Did it ask? We don’t know.
2. What happened to those papers? We don’t know. The university hasn’t said — and hasn’t said whether it asked.
3. Who took the papers from the other 18 newsstands? Radford says it doesn’t know. It says the classified staff employee who took papers from the four locations “disclosed to acting alone” and denied removing papers from the other locations. So who did? We don’t know.
4. It seems like the university might have had leads on those other 18 newsstands it didn’t pursue. The university had surveillance video from other buildings where the newspapers disappeared — but has since disposed of the footage because the university says it’s practice not to keep the video longer than 30 days. The university says that video “was mainly focused on entry and exit points and other main thoroughfares” and not newspaper racks. But wouldn’t that be helpful, though? Unless the raider or raiders of the 18 other racks stashed the papers in some closet, they’d have to walk through a door, right? Wouldn’t video of someone walking through the exit with an armload of newspapers be useful?
5. What are the odds that at least two people acting independently emptied 18 racks? It’s certainly possible, but the coincidence certainly raises suspicions.
There are some serious freedom of the press issues involved here: The freedom to publish something doesn’t mean much if that news can’t actually be delivered to readers. But there’s also an irony. Let’s assume the best of motives — that at least two people were independently so offended by the photo that they took it upon themselves to spare the family and the larger university community some pain, not knowing it was the family that had provided the photo in question. Unfortunately, by doing so, they have only embarrassed the university they were trying to protect.
If we think of the raiding of the newsstands as a cover-up, then this provides the classic lesson of more conventional cover-ups: That the attempt to keep something quiet often causes more problems than the underlying offense. If no one had taken those papers, the disputed Sept. 18 issue would long since be forgotten and instead of writing about whether Radford is committed to freedom of the press, we’d be writing instead about Radford’s ambitious academic goals. Let that be a lesson for whomever needs to learn it.