Colorado Commission Recommends Repealing Law Banning Newspaper Theft

By on July 19, 2012

A Colorado commission that reviews criminal laws voted 17–1 on Friday to recommend repeal of a law criminalizing the theft of free newspapers. Under current Colorado law, taking more than five copies of a free newspaper with intent to prevent others from reading it is illegal. The penalty limit for stealing under 100 copies is $1,000, which jumps to up to $2,500 for 100–500 copies and then to up to $5,000 for more than 500 copies. The law also makes it possible for newspapers, advertisers, and readers to sue for damages—and, most importantly for FIRE’s mission, specifies that the law covers student periodicals. The commission’s recommendation will now go to the Colorado legislature for approval. 

Commissioners argued that the law unnecessarily complicates the Colorado criminal code, citing the fact that only five cases have been brought under the law since it was enacted in 2004. Yet isn’t it equally possible to see a small number of incidents being reported as a testament to the law’s efficacy at deterrence, rather than an argument for repeal? 

As FIRE knows all too well, newspaper theft is a common form of censorship, certainly on college campuses. A wide variety of individuals and groups, including Greek organizations, sports teams, administrators, and public figures steal periodicals-often for the purpose of keeping unfavorable news from reaching the community. Hundreds of cases have been documented by FIRE, the Student Press Law Center, and the First Amendment Center since 2000. The state of Maryland and the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco have similar laws protecting free newspapers. Newspaper theft often goes unprosecuted; the laws in Colorado, Maryland, and California send a clear message that stealing free newspapers will not be tolerated. 

The Colorado commissioners also claimed that you cannot steal free newspapers, as they are different from "something that has value," as state public defender and commission member Doug Wilson put it. Sorry, but that’s crazy. Even if a periodical is free, it still has monetary value: Printing and distributing the news requires significant funds for staff, printing, and delivery, whether papers are funded by advertisers, university budgets, or donations.

Perhaps an analogy will be helpful for Doug Wilson here: Let’s say that the Denver Broncos do a giveaway in which everyone who attends a free event gets a free foam finger that says "Broncos #1 Fan." Someone sees a crate of 1,000 of these fingers sitting around at the event and, knowing that they will be given away for free, decide to take the entire box. By Doug Wilson’s logic, that person did nothing wrong because the fingers are to be given away for free and are therefore not "something that has value." Does this sound even close to right to you? 

And that’s just foam fingers. The uninhibited circulation of independent news is inherently valuable—invaluable even—for a free society. If it wouldn’t be OK to steal all the "free" foam fingers, why is it OK to steal "free" newspapers?