Since 2004, stealing newspapers has been a specific crime in Colorado. Next year, legislators may be asked to repeal the bill that outlawed such theft.
The state Legislature passed the law, HB 1057, after nearly all the copies of an Eagle County free-distribution newspaper were stolen by a person who objected to a story that edition contained. The local prosecutor said because the newspapers were free, no value could be assigned to them; therefore, no crime had been committed.
That argument was nonsensical. A grocery store may give free samples of cherries; that does not mean a customer can walk away with the rest of the cherries without paying for them. Libraries loan books free of charge; that does not mean they cannot control who borrows them, how many a borrower can take out at once, and when those books are due. The cherries still belong to the store, the books still belong to the library, and stealing them is still a crime.
The argument for eliminating the law that specifically prohibits theft of newspapers is that narrowly targeted laws clutter up state statutes. Proponents of repeal say the crime is – and would continue to be – addressed generally in theft laws.
But stealing newspapers to prevent the public from reading them is a special sort of crime. It’s a First Amendment issue. Here’s the argument made by former state Rep. Carl Miller, who at the time represented the people of Eagle County in the Colorado House of Representatives:
“The people who depended on that paper for news and information were victims as the thieves effectively violated their First Amendment rights to benefit from a free press when they censored that newspaper by stealing all the copies.
“The businesses that advertised in the paper spent hard-earned money and made business decisions based upon the advertisements they’d purchased were hurt when the entire run of that newspaper was stolen for the express purpose of making sure that no one, including their customers and potential customers, would ever see anything printed in it.
“Finally, the newspaper itself was hurt. It lost financially as its investment to make the newspaper available was stolen, but even more so by a thief who stole the paper’s right to communicate with its community.”
One argument in the push to repeal the newspaper-theft law will be that much of the material published in print newspapers is also available online. That’s true to a much greater extent now than it was in 2004. It’s also beside the point. Newspapers, as any other business, control the distribution of their products. They exercise that control over their Internet publications just as they do their print publications.
Newspaper theft occurs for many reasons, from resellers to people burning newspapers to keep warm. Stealing newspapers specifically to suppress information is a crime of a different magnitude, related not to the sale price of the printed product, but to something far more precious: the unimpeded flow of information.
The Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice should revise its recommendation to the General Assembly and drop the suggestion that HB 1057 be repealed. If that does not happen, the Legislature should bat that suggestion back on the first day of the session.
Regardless of what happens this time around, the issue is likely to recur. The state Legislature must keep refusing to devalue First Amendment freedoms, because elected officials, of all people, must continue to value the means by which their constituents receive information that enables them to participate in government of the people, by the people and for the people.