Theft Of Campus Papers Should Be Treated As Crime

"IT'S LIKE a virus moving south from the Penn campus," Lee Levine, a lawyer, said last week. `"oon it will be here in the proper schools of Washington." The virus is a pesky little bug that causes college students to steal whole bundles of campus newspapers so other students can't read them.

Levine was the attorney for the Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania newspaper, after dozens of black students stole an entire press run last April to convey anger with the paper's lone conservative column. Now he is the attorney for the Diamondback, the University of Maryland student newspaper, which had 10,000 copies stolen last week under similar circumstances.

In place of the papers, the perpetrators left fliers saying, "Due to its racist nature, the Diamondback will not be available today - read a book!"

If left untreated, this campus klepto-virus frequently develops into a full-blown case of Hackneyism, a very serious condition marked by torpor, mushiness and a distinct feeling that one's spine is missing.

It is named, of course, for Sheldon Hackney, Penn's president during the thievery, now head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. People felled by Hackneyism do not firmly condemn newspaper censorship by theft. Instead they babble feverishly about values in conflict.

Partly because the botched Penn case was tailor-made to produce copycat thefts (it features great publicity, no apology and no punishment), we are undergoing a mini-epidemic of such incidents. The Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., which tracks newspaper thefts on campus, reports that 29 campuses have been hit in the past 14 months. Before that, the total used to be five or six a year.

Thieves torched large numbers of stolen copies at Penn State and the University of Michigan. If papers are conservative, chances are they will be hit again and again, as at Penn State, the University of Florida and Dartmouth. (The Dartmouth administration virtually invites repeated thefts of the Review, calling it "litter" and "abandoned property.")

Some college presidents avoid the issue by throwing up their hands and saying that since copies are free, students can take as many as they like and break no rule.

More commonly, the presidents abdicate responsibility by not noticing the thefts or by saying nothing, as at Florida State, Northern Illinois and two University of Wisconsin campuses. Many of these cases are not political at all, merely pathetic attempts by fraternities and individuals to suppress embarrassing news.

In a few cases, thefts have come after sly racial goading or outright slurs appeared in student papers. But a great many of the grievances make little sense to people outside the race-and-gender hothouses that so many campuses have become.

At the University of Maryland, one complaint said to have triggered the theft was that not enough minority models were featured in a fashion spread. A second was that a report on a summer highway accident that took the lives of three black students was not written to reflect a high enough sense of tragedy. A third complaint was that coverage of a black fraternity accused of brutal hazing was too sharp. But the charges were apparently true - the university suspended the frat for five years. These are issues of sensitivity, not of the "racist nature" of the paper. Well before the theft, the editor had committed himself to increasing minority staffing.

One problem is that the race-and-gender lobby has cultivated both pugnacity and extreme sensitivity. As Herbert Morris, provost at UCLA, says, "On issues of race, ethnicity or gender . . . all that has to happen is a gnat lands on the shoulder and they shoot from the hip."

In this light, newspaper thefts strike some minorities and feminists as logical extensions of campus speech codes: legitimate attempts to silence critics who are creating a "hostile environment."

This attitude makes it a perilous moment for freedom of press on the campus. The more thefts there are, the more they seem normal, often just another way for the race-and-gender lobby to open discussion on another round of concessions from administrators.

The trend would come to a sudden end if college presidents could shake off Hackneyism and deliver the right message. It would go like this: If you think the paper is wrong or biased, write articles, demand a job there yourself or rally and picket, but you can't steal and censor. If you do that, you'll be brought up on charges and you could get thrown out of school.

The good news is that some presidents are starting to respond. William Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland, sharply and quickly denounced the thefts there and campus police are on the trail of the thieves.

At Duke, the new president, Nan Keohane, denounced a recent theft and last week the campus judicial board acted on the case.

And at Penn State, two women charged in the theft of 4,000 copies of the Lionhearted will pay $3,000 in restitution to the paper.

It's a reminder that these thefts aren't pranks or protests. In some jurisdictions, at least, they're crimes.

(Copyright, 1993, Universal Press Syndicate)

John Leo's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times.