After UFPD told us we couldn’t file a police report about our 500 missing copies, we set out to investigate whether they’re right. Is it really true that free papers can’t be stolen?
There’s something missing from the University of Florida’s campus. It’s not a person or even a single object. It’s our papers — about 500 of them in total.
On Monday, Oct. 1, editors at The Fine Print discovered nine newspaper boxes across campus had been completely emptied of Fine Prints. The contents of each box was empty as was the plastic slip that showcases the beautiful, hand-drawn cover. The issue in question, Summer 2018, is still on newspaper stands in downtown and features a cover story on sexual assault and harassment at the Acrosstown Repertory Theater.
Monday night, we spent about two hours restocking the nine empty newspaper boxes across campus. But by Tuesday morning, the papers had again gone missing without a trace from our boxes by Library West, in Weimar Hall and on the east end of Turlington Plaza. We checked nearby trash cans and recycling bins — there were no Fine Prints to be found.
Tuesday afternoon, our art director, Ingrid Wu, called the UF Police Department to file a report at the urging of Michael Chambers, the technician in charge of UF’s Business Services Division (BSD). In 2012, Chambers created the program that oversees the black newspaper boxes that sit on either end of Turlington Plaza and Across campus. The Fine Print has been registered with the program — called the “Modular Publication Distribution System” — from the beginning.
But UFPD told Ingrid they couldn’t write a report because the papers are free. Ingrid said UFPD told her it could increase patrolling around the boxes: If campus police saw someone taking the entire contents of a newspaper box again, an officer could go up to the person and tell them they shouldn’t take our papers.
When contacted by a Fine Print editor the following day, Sergeant Jeff Moran, who is part of UFPD’s investigative division, said the state attorney’s office in the past has apparently “indicated that these free papers can’t be part of a theft.” Moran told The Fine Print that students caught taking excess papers could be disciplined by the Dean of Students, but that he believes no civil or criminal charges would be filed.
“If it’s something free for the public, it’s not technically theft,” Moran said.
But we’re not so sure UFPD and the state attorney’s office are right. We want to know: Does The Fine Print, legally, have a right to be pissed off about this?
The answer is a resounding hell yes.
“It is not correct that people can not be prosecuted for taking something that’s free,” said Frank LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, which is part of the UF College of Journalism. Before coming to UF, LoMonte was a senior legal fellow at the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit that advocates for student journalists’ freedom of speech.
LoMonte told The Fine Print that the illegality of taking free newspapers hinges on intent. That is, were the individual(s) that took the approximately 200 issues we replaced Monday night just bonkers for The Fine Print? Were they so touched by our reporting that they wanted their friends, family and coworkers (and then some) to read our paper?
Or were they taking the issues for a more nefarious purpose than the dissemination of hyperlocal journalism?
For example, LoMonte pointed to a 2007 incident at Indiana State University, in which two individuals admitted to stealing — that’s right, stealing — 600 copies of the Indian Statesman to paper mâché a parade float.
“If I’m going to hog all of these and use them in a way that’s not readable anymore, that’s still stealing,” he said.
LoMonte said that any individual caught stealing newspapers could be sued in small claims court for the amount lost. “That feels like the right punishment for the crime,” he said.
The Student Press Law Center also advises that newspaper theft is illegal because publishers like The Fine Print put their papers in newspaper boxes with the intention of someone taking them to read — that can’t happen if someone empties the box entirely.
“Newspaper thieves deprive rightful owners of their valuable property,” according to SPLC’s website. “Letting the thieves get away with it threatens the viability of a free press itself.”
The Fine Print has filed a records request with UF for security camera footage that could show who walked away with our papers on Monday night or Tuesday morning. If such footage exists, we intend to publish it.
If the culprit is found, Michael Chambers told The Fine Print he intends to prosecute. “In the least, I will attempt to press charges of vandalism of the modular units themselves” he wrote.
Chambers is concerned because The Fine Print is not the only campus-distributed paper that experienced an X-Files-esque disappearance of our papers. Boxes belonging to the Gainesville Iguana, the Really Independent Florida Crocodile and the Alligator were also cleared out between Monday night and Tuesday morning.
“I initially created the Modular Publication Distribution System years ago and I am not going to have it jeopardized,” Chambers wrote in an email. “Trust me – I will figure this one out.”
When Ingrid called UFPD to file a report, she said the officer on call compared our missing papers to ketchup packets at a restaurant.
The kicker? LoMonte said even ketchup packets can be stolen.
“If you go to Wendy’s and take two or three ketchup packets, sure, that’s not stealing,” LoMonte said. “But if you take all the ketchup packets and cost Wendy’s $50 worth of ketchup packets? That’s stealing.” •
If you have any information that could help The Fine Print in its quest to find who did this, don’t hesitate to reach out to us over social media or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, if you’d like to donate to cover the cost of the stolen papers — which we estimate is about $100 ($0.20 per issue times approx. 500 copies) — you can do so via our PayPal. As always, we appreciate your support!