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Radford University worker blamed for emptied student newspaper racks

Radford University worker blamed for emptied student newspaper racks

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MG RU Tartan 102919

A rack offers a recent edition in October of The Tartan at Radford University.

RADFORD — A Radford University worker was responsible for at least some of the abrupt disappearance in September of the student-run Tartan newspaper from racks around campus, university officials announced Friday.

The worker was not named by the university and will not be charged criminally, but was disciplined within the state employee system, Chief of Police David Underwood said in a letter announcing the outcome of a review launched seven weeks ago.

Dylan Lepore, editor-in-chief of The Tartan, said Saturday that the paper is looking into whether a civil rights complaint can be filed and whether additional information about the removal of the papers, such as university security videos, can be obtained.

“It’s definitely going to escalate. … It’s a First Amendment issue,” Lepore said.

The vanishing of an estimated 1,000 copies of the Sept. 18 edition of The Tartan, roughly two-thirds of its weekly run, attracted a scattering of national news coverage. It came amid a flurry of campus events that included the Sept. 10 death of new Criminal Justice department chairman Stephen Tibbetts, and two days later, the death of freshman Aris Eduardo Lobo-Perez after he was jailed on intoxication and alcohol charges.

Both deaths were covered in the edition of The Tartan that disappeared.

The papers were taken hours after they were distributed to racks around campus. The disappearance occurred on the evening before television journalist Katie Couric arrived to moderate a political discussion before an audience of alumni, members of the board of visitors, and other guests, as well as students, at the launch of the university’s new Highlander Discovery Institute.

According to emails obtained by The Roanoke Times last month under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, university President Brian Hemphill and other administrators were displeased with The Tartan’s choice of a front-page photo to accompany a news obituary about Tibbetts. The photo, which Lepore said was provided to the paper by Tibbetts’ family, showed the department chairman and his daughter standing beneath a sign that said “Tibbetts Street” and “Dead End.”

Hemphill said in a statement last month that he was disappointed by the newspaper’s choice of the photo.

In an email obtained by the Roanoke Times, interim dean of the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences Matthew Smith wrote that he was “outraged” by The Tartan’s front page and called it “the singularly most insensitive editorial choice I’ve witnessed in 30 years.”

At midday Saturday, few students were out and about on Radford University’s campus. Of eight students who were asked about The Tartan, most said they did not read it and did not know about the disappearance. Only one, freshman history major Sean Mahan of Woodbridge, said that he had heard about it.

Cautioning that it might be only rumor, Mahan said he heard someone took the papers “because they didn’t want stuff getting out” about Lobo-Perez’s death in the New River Valley Regional Jail.

Lepore said that he also had heard that the papers might have been taken to keep them from being seen by the crowd that was anticipated for the Couric event.

“I don’t know if any of that holds. But that’s a theory,” he said.

The motive for the removal of the newspapers was not discussed in the police chief’s letter, which was delivered to Lepore Friday to announce the outcome of what Underwood termed an “administrative review.”

According to the letter, a “classified staff employee” took the papers from four newsstands around campus on the evening of Sept. 18. The letter did not say what happened at another 18 newsstands where Lapore said newspapers also were removed.

The Tartan now is available for free from racks in 33 locations, including three that are off campus, Lepore said.

The chief’s letter said that his department consulted with the Virginia Attorney General’s office and with Radford’s commonwealth’s attorney and determined that there was nothing criminal in “someone taking multiple copies of a free newspaper.”

While there was no criminal charge, the worker was found to have committed a “Group II offense” under the state employees’ disciplinary policy, the chief wrote.

Penalties for a first Group II offense can range up to a 10-day suspension and repeat offenses can lead to dismissal, according to a copy of the policy provided Saturday by Caitlyn Scaggs, the university’s associate vice president for university relations.

Scaggs declined to provide university security video that was gathered as part of the police review, saying it was part of the personnel record of the employee who took the papers and not subject to public disclosure.

Lepore said that he is consulting the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C., about possible next steps.

The Tartan’s self-description, printed in each issue, is that it is free of charge, with one copy available per person. But Lepore said that he sees the newspaper’s removal as a theft because it is funded with student money.

“The students basically pay for a subscription with their fees,” Lepore said. The disappearance of the paper is “not just taking from The Tartan, it’s taking from the student body.”

Asked how it felt to be at the center of all the hubbub, Lepore, a media studies major from Richmond who plans to graduate next fall, laughed and said he just wanted to make things right.

“I had one job: not to make the newspaper the news,” Lepore said.

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