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Missing Tartans: Watchdog group sides with RU student journalists

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A pro-journalism nonprofit sent Radford University a letter this week critical of its handling of its student-run newspaper over the last few months, including the school’s investigation of reported missing copies of a September Tartan edition.

The Society of Professional Journalists Virginia Professional Chapter is asking for the university to release the employee’s name whom the school has said admitted to removing copies of the Sept. 18 edition of The Tartan from four campus racks.

The school’s administration has declined multiple requests from various news outlets to do so, citing it as a personnel issue that is exempt from Freedom of Information laws.

The university said it doesn’t know what happened to papers reported missing from another 18 racks — and campus police have closed the investigation.

The university has said the employee acted alone and did not give a reason for taking the papers. The university said the culprit was punished internally.

The university has also said it did not retain video from buildings where papers went missing. University officials said it retained video where the employee was shown taking the papers, but it is also being withheld due to personnel reasons.

The papers were taken just hours before a high profile university event — Katie Couric moderating a political discussion on campus Sept. 19, for which the school paid the journalist $195,000. The school’s family weekend followed a few days later.

The incident prompted questions about censorship and motive.

The SPJ letter was sent by the chapter’s board of directors to university Vice President for Student Affairs Susan Trageser on Monday. The letter states that the chapter was “disheartened” to read that approximately 1,000 of the 1,500 copies of the Sept. 18 paper went missing.

The letter also states that the chapter was “even more dismayed” that university administrators discussed with Tartan staff the possibility of attending its editorial meetings, as well as the administration’s concerns over the newspaper’s coverage of Luisa Ines Tudela Harris Cutting, who pleaded guilty in October to the January slaying of her roommate, and student Aris Eduardo Lobo Perez, who recently died in New River Valley Regional Jail.

Additionally, a cover photo for a story on a recently deceased faculty member, Steve Tibbetts, drew criticism from administrators, including President Brian Hemphill. The picture featured Tibbetts and his daughter in front of a street sign with their last name. The sign also included the words “dead end.”

Tibbetts’ wife, Kim, told The Roanoke Times this month that she has no problem with the picture since she provided it to The Tartan and her late husband would’ve found it funny.

The SPJ letter also states that it’s “unrealistic to believe that this specific edition of The Tartan was so popular that two-thirds of the press run was taken from newspaper boxes within hours of being distributed.”

“First Amendment principles, even in a school setting, are a foundation for democracy and good government. Institutions of higher learning should seek to foster respect and appreciation for the role of an independent press in our society,” the letter states.

The letter continues:

“At a time when journalists in the U.S. and around the world are under attack, it is the clear duty of all Virginia universities to strongly remind citizens of the legacy of free speech and press. Virginians wrote the world’s earliest constitutional law declaring government the protector of these inherent rights. The press plays an important role, even in a campus community.

“We encourage the RU student affairs office and the school administration to recognize the importance of a free and independent press in the community, whether that community is a campus or a nation.”

The university has no response to the letter, according to spokeswoman Caitlyn Scaggs.


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