Berkeley, Calif., makes it illegal to steal free newspapers

CALIFORNIA —- The Berkeley City Councilunanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday that prohibits the theft of freenewspapers, making it one of only a handful of cities nationwide with such astatute.The push for the ordinance began last year when Berkeley MayorTom Bates, then a candidate for the office, trashed 1,000 copies of theUniversity of California at Berkeley student newspaper, The DailyCalifornian, because it endorsed his opponent.Bates supported thelaw. In addition to pleading guilty for petty theft in January, Bates promisedto propose an ordinance prohibiting the theft of free newspapers.Thoughthe ordinance does not spell out penalties for stealing free newspapers, thecity will apply penalties mandated by the state’s petty theft law whenprosecuting thieves. The state law calls for fines of up to $1,000 and jailsentences of up to six months.Eric Schewe, editor in chief of TheDaily Californian, said he hopes the law will make people realize thattaking multiple copies of free newspapers is illegal.”At the sametime, it’s a largely symbolic measure,” Schewe said. ”Itexplicitly states [the illegality] of actions that were onlyimplicit.”In a report to city council members, Berkeley CityAttorney Manuela Albuquerque wrote that the ordinance would help guideprosecutors in future thefts.”There is no specific and clear lawthat prohibits the unauthorized removal of free newspapers,” she wrote.”This ordinance would codify such a law so that the prosecutor has a clearbasis to prosecute such conduct.”Theft of free newspapers is acommon problem at college campuses. Student newspaper editors reported 28 theftsin the last academic year to the Student Press Law Center. Many of the theftswere adjudicated in campus disciplinary hearings rather than in municipalcourts. The Daily Californian has faced frequent theft problems.In addition to the incident last November involving Bates, a group of studentstook nearly 2,500 copies of the newspaper last May in protest of coverage thatthose students claimed was racist.”It does happen, I would say,every nine months to year,” Schewe said. ”Either theft or thethreat of theft.”The biggest theft at The Daily Californianoccurred in 1996 when the newspaper endorsed California Proposition 209 thatbanned the use of affirmative action in state hiring and college admissionsprocesses. The entire press run of 23,000 was taken before newspapers couldreach distribution points.Becky O’Malley, executive editor of thefree newspaper The Berkeley Daily Planet, said the proposed ordinance ismostly symbolic.”I think that the Berkeley law is, in a way,redundant,” she said. Because the law contains no new restrictions orpenalties, ”Adding another law doesn’t make that big adifference.”O’Malley said that since taking over TheBerkeley Daily Planet in April, there have been times when large quantitiesof the newspaper disappeared. She said she did not knowwhy.”It’s very hard to know why most of the papersdisappeared,” she said. ”It’s very hard to tell whetherit’s for recycling or for content.”O’Malley said shehopes that the new law will reduce the number of people who take newspapers totry profit from recycling by selling the papers to recycling plants.Inaddition to pleading guilty to petty theft charges, Bates paid $500 restitutionto The Daily Californian for advertising, printing and distribution, aswell as the time and energy of the newspaper staff.”It’s aweird lesson in economics,” Schewe said. ”Free doesn’t meanno-value. We want wide dissemination of our newspaper and theft preventsthat.”

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