Is removing a stack of free newspapers “theft?”
Not something you usually think about, right? Really no reason to unless it happens at your school or in your town. But is it a crime if you take more than one with the intent to keep a story from being read – some consider this a form of censorship.
A task force of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has made a recommendation to remove this part of the state’s theft law. Considered a “boutique crime” (one that clogs the courts and is used little) the vote was near unanimous to extract it from the criminal code. It was passed in 2004 and carries a fine between $1000 for thefts between six and 100 copies and $5,000 for thefts of more than 500 copies of the newspaper. There have been five cases where charges were filed since the law’s inception, eight years ago.
The Colorado law reads in pertinent part:
“(1) A person commits the offense of newspaper theft when that person obtains or exerts unauthorized control over more than five copies of an edition of a newspaper from a newspaper distribution container owned or leased by the newspaper publisher with the intent to prevent other individuals from reading that edition of the newspaper. Control is unauthorized if there is a notice on the newspaper or on the newspaper distribution container that possession of more than five copies with intent to prevent other individuals from reading that edition of the newspaper is illegal.” (Colorado Revised Statute 18-4-419)
The Student Press Law Center reports that student publications are disproportionately singled out for theft by fellow students, faculty or administrators as a means of censoring content. “It’s well documented that groups on campus will use theft as a tactic of censorship,” explained Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the SPLC. The existing law puts everyone on notice that it’s against the law to steal copies of free papers if meant to silence a story that is public information. It is further argued that eliminating the law would be unfair to advertisers who pay for space in free publications. LoMonte commented that “Repealing the law risks giving those on the ground the idea that the state is legalizing theft, and that’s a dangerous statement.”
What do you think? Is a law necessary on this subject? Other states, including California and Maryland, have similar statutes that criminalize the theft of free newspapers. Everyone knows that stealing is wrong, whether a law exists or not. Isn’t it a matter of ethics? Where do you draw the line between legitimately taking a half-dozen copies for personal use and being accused of stealing more than one copy to keep others from reading the newspaper? Don’t existing theft laws cover this?