Taking out the Trash

In the past five years, more than 120 college student newspaper thefts have been reported to the Student Press Law Center. Of those 120 thefts, only two successful criminal prosecutions of thieves resulted.

Since the SPLC began tracking student newspaper thefts in 1992, nearly 250 incidents of mass takings have been reported. But most experts agree that number does not reflect the true extent of the problem because newspaper thefts often go unnoticed or unreported.

Individuals responsible for stealing student publications often do not consider what they are doing a crime, and many police officers and local prosecutors agree.

Beginning July 1, however, people who steal free publications in Colorado will no longer have the benefit of such a lackadaisical response by authorities to incidents of theft.

Colorado lawmakers, acknowledging the injuries suffered by the victims of newspaper theft, enacted legislation this spring that explicitly outlaws the mass takings of free newspapers. Gov. Bill Owens signed the bill April 13. 

Colorado is only the second state to impose financial and criminal penalties on people found guilty of newspaper theft. Maryland passed a newspaper theft law in 1994. Two California cities have passed similar ordinances.

Many student newspapers already attempt to prevent thefts and make them easier to prosecute by placing a notice such as “first copy free, each additional copy $1” (or some other predetermined amount) in the publication. By placing a value on the paper and notifying would-be thieves of that value, some newspaper editors have convinced local or campus police to investigate the crime.

As Colorado lawmakers discovered, convincing a prosecutor to pursue a case against those suspected of newspaper theft can be a difficult feat. The most common excuse prosecutors use is that the theft of free newspapers is not a crime. Some prosecutors will not prosecute newspaper thieves because they do not believe they can win free-newspaper theft cases. Others believe there is no law under which to prosecute the theft of a free publication.  

Student journalists argue that newspaper theft is not a “victimless crime.” The students say that stealing free newspapers is a crime worth prosecuting because at least three parties are injured when newspapers are stolen: the reader, the advertiser and the newspaper itself.  

Colorado student journalists applauded the legislation, hoping that newspaper thieves will no longer go unpunished for their crimes.

When debating the law, Colorado legislators decided that the number of newspapers stolen and the motives for the crime should be considered when defining cases of newspaper theft. Under the law, a newspaper theft occurs when a “person obtains or exerts unauthorized control over more than five copies of an edition of a newspaper … with the intent to prevent other individuals from reading that edition of the newspaper.”

Taking fewer than five copies of the newspaper is not considered theft. Nor is it theft if, for example, a person who has been featured in the paper takes a small number of copies to distribute to family and friends because the person’s intent was not to keep others from reading the paper.

The law fines thieves depending on how many papers they steal. A person who steals fewer than 100 copies of a single edition could face fines of up to $1,000. The fine jumps to $2,500 if between 100 and 500 copies are stolen, and if more than 500 copies are stolen, the fine could reach $5,000.

The Colorado law requires that a free publication place a notice in its pages or on its distribution container, stating that possession of five or more copies “with intent to prevent other individuals from reading that edition of the newspaper is illegal.”

In addition to monetary and criminal penalties, the law includes a civil right to sue the perpetrator.

Colorado Rep. Carl Miller, D-Leadville, said that even free newspapers have a monetary value. 

“When you have a paper full of advertisements, there are thousands of dollars involved,” said Miller, who sponsored the bill in the House.

A newspaper publisher who is a victim of theft, an advertiser who placed an ad in a newspaper that was stolen or a regular reader of the paper has a civil right to sue the newspaper thief.

“It’s defrauding somebody. It’s stealing from somebody, and it’s important to prosecute these things,” said state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs. 

Legislators grappled over the definition of “newspaper,” settling on “a periodical that includes news, editorials, opinion, features, or other matters of public interest that is distributed on a complimentary basis.” Most significantly for student journalists, legislators included the following language in the law:  “‘Newspaper’ includes any student periodical distributed at any institution of higher education.”

State Sen. John Andrews, R-Arapahoe County, proposed the amendment to include student periodicals in the language of the law.

“I thought that it would be helpful to have student papers specifically protected in this law,” said Andrews, president of the Colorado Senate. 

Andrews said the law is important because it addresses issues of academic freedom.

“This is about making sure that the academic freedom of all students on campus, conservative as well as liberal, is really protected by campus policies and, if necessary, by state law,” Andrews said. 

Andrews, a Republican, said he believes conservative student publications are targeted more often than other publications because of their viewpoints.

Shandra Jordan, editor of The Collegian, a student newspaper at Colorado State University, said that she believes a law that will help student journalists take legal action against newspaper thieves is long overdue.

“We produce a newspaper, and it’s viewed as a real newspaper to our community,” Jordan said. “There’s nothing inherently different about it from any other free newspaper that’s given out in a community.”

Debate over the legislation has prompted some to wonder why newspaper theft occurs at all. 

Ed Otte, executive director for the Colorado Press Association, said crime stories are the most often cause of newspaper thefts.

“The examples that were cited [during the hearings] involved criminal stories where a resident was either charged or arrested for a crime of some kind,” Otte said. “Some family members or friends didn’t want the public to know, and in a couple of cases, confiscated several thousand copies of that day’s issue.”

Otte said one reason college student publications face theft problems is because “there may be a liberal/conservative tiff” on college campuses. He said a paper might have “some conservative or liberal issues in it and the other side doesn’t like it and goes around campus and collects all of the papers out of the distribution points.”

But newspapers have also been stolen because a person did not want their name or picture in the paper or did not agree with a column or article that was printed.

Some legislators were surprised to learn why police and prosecutors are unwilling to pursue newspaper theft cases.

Taylor said he sponsored the bill because he was concerned that Colorado district attorneys were not prosecuting newspaper thieves.

Otte said that he was unable to find any instances in which a newspaper theft was successfully prosecuted in Colorado. He said that while testifying in support of the bill, “it was pointed out that one [prosecutor] declined to pursue [a newspaper theft prosecution] because he felt he couldn’t prosecute it and win.”

He said the law allows prosecutors to clearly see that newspaper theft is indeed a crime.

But at least one prosecutor expressed doubts about the law. 

Al Dominguez, the district attorney for Weld County, Colo., said he questions his ability to enforce the law.

“We don’t usually get what [a thief’s] motive was for the taking, and if they chose to remain silent, as is their Constitutional right, how could we prove in court what the law requires us to prove?” Dominguez said. 

He said that while he believes in the freedom of the press and an individual’s right to read what they want, he has a “concern … with the present law and its applicability in the real world of the criminal courts.”

Dominguez said that for many Colorado prosecutors, time and money are limited, and the district attorney has to “weigh the value of expending resources in prosecuting [newspaper thefts] or spending time on … cases where we have serious bodily injuries.”

Anti-newspaper theft laws, like Colorado’s, are not the only avenue for criminal charges. Newspaper thieves have been successfully charged under other laws in a few cases.

In 1988, four students at the University of Florida at Gainesville were criminally prosecuted and found guilty of stealing newspapers from at least three distribution boxes on campus. The students pleaded no contest and were charged $100 each in court costs and sentenced to serve 25 hours of community service and six months probation.

In 1994, two graduate students at Pennsylvania State University were charged with stealing newspapers and agreed to enter a “First Amendment rehabilitation program.”

In 1995, a student at the University of Texas at Austin admitted to stealing thousands of copies of the student newspaper because the newspaper printed his name in an article. He was charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum $4,000 fine, a year in jail or both.   

In 1996, nearly 11,000 copies of the University of Kentucky student newspaper were stolen. The county prosecutor, who had an interest in journalism and the freedom of the press, investigated the crime. Three students were apprehended and were punished for third degree criminal mischief. 

Outside of the realm of criminal prosecutions, student journalists have had more success convincing school officials to punish newspaper thieves through university disciplinary proceedings. 

Earlier this year, a student at the University of Central Florida was punished for her role in the theft of The Future, a student newspaper at the Orlando school. She was required to perform community service and pay the newspaper $1,000.

The results of university proceedings are often kept confidential because of concerns for a student’s privacy rights.

Laws specifically prohibiting the theft of free newspapers exist in a small number of locations outside of Colorado.

In 1994, Maryland was the first state to pass a law outlawing newspaper theft. The law was introduced after a number of newspaper thefts occurred in Maryland, including thefts at the University of Maryland at College Park, John Hopkins University and the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, as well as commercial publications in the state. Many state publications lobbied for the law’s approval.

The Maryland law applies to the theft of both free and commercial newspapers and does not specify the number of stolen papers that constitute a theft under the law. The law states that a crime is committed when a person takes “newspapers with the intent to prevent other individuals from reading the newspapers.” A person convicted of newspaper theft in Maryland could face a $500 fine, up to 60 days in jail or both.

In 1996, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance outlawing the theft of free newspapers. A person convicted of the misdemeanor crime could face fines up to $500, community service or both. For repeat offenders, jail time is possible.

Berkeley, Calif., modeled a city ordinance outlawing newspaper thefts in 2003 after San Francisco’s law.

In December 2002, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates admitted to trashing nearly 1,000 copies of The Daily Californian, a student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley, which had endorsed his opponent in the mayoral elections.

Bates, in addition to paying a $100 fine for the theft, paid $500 in restitution to the newspaper and agreed to support legislation that would make it a crime to steal free newspapers.

The ordinance does not address criminal sanctions against the thieves, but the city applies penalties mandated by the state’s petty theft law. A person convicted of stealing free newspapers could face fines of up to $1,000, up to six months in jail or both.

Similar legislation has been introduced in Virginia and Michigan but failed to become law.

In 1995, Virginia Gov. George Allen, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have forbidden individuals from stealing free newspapers. The bill, which would have imposed fines on people convicted of stealing newspapers “to impede or prevent distribution,” passed both Virginia’s House and Senate before Allen vetoed the bill, calling it “impractical and unenforceable.”

A bill introduced in Michigan that would fine or jail people convicted of newspaper theft failed to make it out of committee in 1998. The proposed bill was in response to newspaper thefts at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University and would have punished individuals who took more than 100 copies of a newspaper. The bill was never reintroduced.

LAW: Colo. Rev. Stat. Sec. 18-4-419.