SJB: Signal “theft” no code violation
The Georgia State Student Judicial Board said last Thursday students have the right to destroy as many Signal newspapers as they would like under the university code of conduct.
The board does not usually weigh in on issues before being presented with actual cases, according to the Dean of Student’s Office, and the justifications for its interpretation of the code have been contested by the Student Press Law Center.
While the group’s chief justice, Allison Renyi, characterized the disposal of the newspapers as improper and suggested alternative methods of expressing displeasure with the paper, she said the actions were protected because the papers were free and their disposal represented a form of symbolic speech.
“It’s not theft because it’s open, it’s distributed, to all students and it’s accessible to everyone,” Renyi said. “As one student, while it would be grossly unfair of me, I could take every single one of the papers because, as a student, those papers are mine.”
The board’s ruling last Thursday was based on an incident involving the trashing of approximately 250 copies of The Signal three weeks ago. The SJB is a division of the Dean of Students Office, the same office tasked with investigating the disposal.
However, the SJB’s finding should not impact how the case is investigated, Renyi said.
“The SJB doesn’t have anything to do with the investigation process because it’s strictly with the university,” Renyi said. “So while we work with each other, when it comes to investigations and violations and anything of that nature, there is a great separation between the organizations that allows us to function.”
Rebecca Stout, associate vice president and dean of students, said her office would continue to investigate the March 13 disposal of the newspapers independent of the SJB. She also said she did not know how the SJB could make a statement on the case without having it first investigated by the Dean of Student’s Office.
“The SJB does not have the jurisdictional authority to make any determination about code of conduct charges. That is fully the responsibility of the Office of the Dean of Students,” Stout said.
The board merely has the authority to make recommendations to the Dean of Students, she continued.
In her clarification of the ruling, Renyi said the board may have ruled differently if the students involved in the disposal had resorted to physical violence or destroyed papers before they were distributed.
She compared the student’s actions to the burning of an American flag. While the action may be deplorable, she continued, it’s still protected.
However, groups like the Student Press Law Center have contested that particular interpretation.
“You have a right to burn your own flag; you don’t have a right to burn other people’s flags,” said Frank LoMonte, the SPLC’s executive director. “You could certainly do that with one paper, [but] what you can’t do is deprive other people of their papers.”
LoMonte also criticized the idea that there is nothing wrong with throwing away the papers because the papers are free in single copies.
“You’re not welcome to take all the papers you want any more than you’re welcome to go into a homeless soup kitchen and eat all the sandwich’s and drink all the soup,” LoMonte said. “That’s just a misconception.”
Further, he said the thrashings could still be considered vandalism, since the papers were later recovered, even if the university did not classify the actions as theft.
The Georgia State University Police Department is also investigating the matter for potential criminal implications.