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University employees steal bundles of campus newspaper to stop ‘bad publicity’ on Welcome Day

Newspaper editor refused to remove them voluntarily

Admissions staffers at the University of Massachusetts-Boston won’t face legal penalties for stealing student newspapers from campus newsstands in order to prevent embarrassment to the university.

The only consequences they will face is a “mandatory staff training” about the First Amendment rights of The Mass Media newspaper, Editor-in-Chief Kelsey Hale told The College Fix, sharing her conversations with a campus official.

The newspaper became a target of the admissions department because of a front-page article that was still on newsstands during “Welcome Day” on April 6, when students accepted as freshmen and their guests visit the campus.

The Mass Media reported on a “Level 2 hazmat situation” in a campus dorm that drew two fire trucks, four police vehicles and an ambulance. A student mixed together enamel and varnish in an apparent attempt to create “a substance similar to bath salts,” the newspaper said.

The Office of Housing and Residential Life didn’t send an email to dorm residents until 19 hours after the incident, claiming there was “no danger” from the “over-the-counter chemicals” that staff found in the dorm.

The Mass Media emphasized that the email didn’t mention that a student had been carried out of the scene on a stretcher and taken to the hospital, having “supposedly fainted due to an adverse chemical reaction.” It also didn’t mention the student’s apparent intent.

While it’s not aware of the full details, the Student Press Law Center considers the top-down situation described by Hale as a “very clear act of censorship that would violate the federal First Amendment,” senior legal counsel Mike Hiestand told The Fix in a Friday email. But he emphasized that he hasn’t researched the legal implications at the state level.

Hiestand also declined to say whether “I’ve been in touch” with The Mass Media about the incident.

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Staffers warned her about ‘bad publicity’

Hale, the editor-in-chief, said the university removed the newspapers after she refused to remove them voluntarily.

In an open letter published on The Mass Media’s front page April 8, Hale provided readers a timeline of events that showed just how far the university would go to hide the hazmat article.

She said the university asked her the day before Welcome Day to remove the newspapers because the hazmat article was on the cover. The article made clear that rumors were rampant during the emergency because the university was silent. One dorm resident said: “We should have been evacuated.”

Hale declined, noting that student publications at public universities including UMB are protected by the First Amendment. The morning of Welcome Day, Hale received a photo of an empty Mass Media newsstand on the first floor of University Hall. This area “has never been completely emptied by students and was checked on Friday to make sure it was stocked,” she wrote.

When she returned to empty stands with more stacks of newspapers, Hale found a jacket hanging from one. Two admissions staffers approached Hale to ask her to leave them empty for the day because of the “bad publicity” the newspapers would cause.

She noted she had already told the university she wouldn’t remove the newspapers. Ultimately “they let me refill the stand,” Hale wrote.

No more than 20 minutes later, Hale received another photo of the same stand that showed the newspapers flipped around to hide the front page and another jacket hanging on the stand. This prompted the editor-in-chief to cross campus again, where she flipped the newspapers back around.

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‘Confiscating copies’ is unconstitutional

“The actions done by the admissions office are a poor representation of the university staff, and are also an infringement on our rights as a publication,” Hale wrote, citing the Student Press Law Center’s analysis of legal precedent on college media’s First Amendment rights.

Because the taxpayer-funded university allows students to run The Mass Media, it can’t censor the newspaper by “confiscating copies of publications” or “limiting circulation” without violating the law, according to SPLC.

Hale publicly demanded a meeting with the admissions staffers and Chancellor Katherine Newman and a “written and oral apology,” to be published in The Mass Media, for the “disrespect towards the paper, to myself and my staff.” She also suggested “some sort of training on the rights of publications at this university.”

The administration accepted Hale’s idea about training, she said. Lisa Johnson, vice chancellor for enrollment management, told Hale she had imposed “a mandatory staff training for all admissions staffers to attend” about Mass Media’s rights as a publication.

The newspaper isn’t considering a lawsuit against the university, given this turn of events, Hale told The Fix on Saturday.

Neither the administration nor admissions department has responded to Fix emails Sunday and Monday.

MORE: UMass-Boston demands $1,500 from us to see public records

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About the Author
Alexander Pease -- University of Massachusetts, Boston