There’s consternation at Radford University over the apparent theft of student newspaper copies. The circumstances raise suspicions of an assault on free speech.
The Tartan carried two stories on its front page that some people might have seen as either unflattering to the university or negative in general.
The newspapers were distributed to boxes on campus the night before celebrity journalist Katie Couric was to appear for a high-profile visit to help launch RU’s Highlander Discovery Institute.
The papers contained front-page coverage of the death of a university freshman in the local jail, as well as the death of Steve Tibbets, who was recently hired to chair the university’s Criminal Justice Department.
At around the same time, university officials requested a meeting with the editor-in-chief and faculty advisor. Later that day, the editor discovered that around 1,000 papers were missing out of the 1,500 that had been distributed.
At a meeting on the following day involving eight university officials — six of them reportedly high-ranking administrators — officials said they had received complaints about the photo accompanying the Tibbets story. The photo had been supplied by a member of the family, who presumably had no qualms about its usage, the editor said. The newspaper itself received no such complaints.
Administrators also brought up The Tartan’s coverage of a case in which an RU student is accused of murdering her roommate, according to reports.
RU officials later told The Roanoke Times that they did not orchestrate, participate in or have any knowledge of the removal of the newspapers.
They also said they did not request, and would not request, prior approval of the work of any student media, including the newspaper.
No, but bringing pressure to bear after the fact might be a different matter.
RU officials said the meeting, and an earlier one the preceding week, focused on how the administration can improve its relationship with The Tartan and how it can pitch stories to, and share university news with, the newspaper.
Many student newspapers operate under a delicate balance. Some, like The Cavalier Daily, function independently from their schools, financing themselves through advertising revenue, donations or other sources. Others have varying degrees of dependence on school activity funding.
But all share journalism’s fundamental claim to press freedom. Without such freedom, they cannot do their job of reporting the facts to readers who want, and need, to know what’s going on around them.
That includes facts that some might interpret as “negative” — students suspected of committing crimes, important staff members dying unexpectedly.
Did someone assume that these “negatives” shouldn’t be seen around campus on the day a high-profile event was taking place, attracting community members and alumni? If so, who?
University police are investigating, RU announced.
It’s unrealistic to believe that the weekly edition was so wildly popular that two-thirds of the press run was taken from newspaper boxes within hours of having been distributed.
Indeed, the newspaper staff needs a coordinated process to get all the papers to their proper places; someone must have coordinated an effort to remove most of them almost as quickly.
Such a maneuver is an assault on free speech — and a form of theft against those who wanted to obtain a copy of the paper but couldn’t.
We hope the RU police find the culprit quickly, and are able to press charges.