Anti-theft legislation sprouting wings

The Student Press Law Center Report devotes space in nearly every issue to detailing student newspaper thefts across the nation. In many cases, thefts go unreported and unprosecuted. But at a number of schools, student journalists, journalism educators and free speech groups have brought the issue to the attention of state legislators.In response to a newspaper theft in September, the editor of the Northern Essex Community College Observer has supported the introduction of a bill in the Massachusetts state legislature that would criminalize newspaper theft.The bill would amend the general laws to say that anyone who willfully or knowingly obtains newspapers intending to prevent others from reading them can be punished with up to a $500 fine or 60 days in jail.The legislation is being introduced in the state House of Representatives by Rep. Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill) and co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. James Jajuga (D-Methuen). An aide to Rep. Dempsey said the bill is designed to protect the freedom of speech guaranteed to students, even when others may object to that speech. Sen. Jajuga said 3I will not stand idly by while free speech is allowed to be stifled without further protection under the laws of the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts].2A bill that will be introduced in the Michigan legislature by Rep. Elizabeth Brater (D-Ann Arbor) in January is similar to the bill in Massachusetts. The bill would make illegal the theft of free periodicals.According to an aide to Rep. Brater, the bill is in response to a March 1996 theft of the University of Michigan Michigan Daily in which over 8,000 copies of the newspaper were stolen.The bill would make stealing free periodicals a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a $100 fine.After three students were prosecuted in the theft of the student newspaper at the University of Kentucky, the faculty adviser to the Kentucky Kernel, Michael Agin, said he is working to get the support of state journalism organizations in passing a law against newspaper theft.Agin said he has talked to the executive director of the Kentucky Press Association and members of the Kentucky Intercollegiate Press Association about supporting such a law, and hopes to see a bill introduced to the legislature by the next session, which meets in February.In Alaska, a bill introduced by Rep. Terry Martin (R-Anchorage) in February of 1996 did not pass, according to an aide. The aide said the bill will probably not be reintroduced because the law already provides protection against theft, as long as student journalists are aware of their rights. The bill came after a theft at the University of Alaska Southeast at Juneau in May of 1995.