Theft of free-distribution newspapers by those who object to the newspaper’s content is a frequent problem for the college student media. Although newspaper thieves have been successfully prosecuted in many jurisdictions under existing theft laws, California, like a handful of other states or local governments, has passed a law explicitly criminalizing the taking of free newspapers.
California Penal Code Section 490.7:
(a) The Legislature finds that free newspapers provide a key source of information to the public, in many cases providing an important alternative to the news and ideas expressed in other local media sources. The Legislature further finds that the unauthorized taking of multiple copies of free newspapers, whether done to sell them to recycling centers, to injure a business competitor, to deprive others of the opportunity to read them, or for any other reason, injures the rights of readers, writers, publishers, and advertisers, and impoverishes the marketplace of ideas in California.
(b) No person shall take more than twenty-five (25) copies of the current issue of a free or complimentary newspaper if done with the intent to do one or more of the following:(1) Recycle the newspapers for cash or other payment.(2) Sell or barter the newspaper.(3) Deprive others of the opportunity to read or enjoy the newspaper.(4) Harm a business competitor.
(c) This section does not apply to the owner or operator of the newsrack in which the copies are placed, the owner or operator of the property on which the newsrack is placed, the publisher, the printer, the distributor, the deliverer of the newspaper, or to any advertiser in that issue, or to any other person who has the express permission to do so from any of these entities.
(d) Any newspaper publisher may provide express permission to take more than twenty-five (25) copies of the current issue of a free or complimentary newspaper by indicating on the newsrack or in the newspaper itself, that people may take a greater number of copies if they wish.
(e) A first violation of subdivision (b) shall be an infraction punishable by a fine not exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250). A second or subsequent violation shall be punishable as an infraction or a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor conviction under this section is punishable by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars ($500), imprisonment of up to 10 days in a county jail, or by both that fine and imprisonment. The court mayorder community service in lieu of the punishment otherwise provided for an infraction or misdemeanor in the amount of 20 hours for an infraction, and 40 hours for a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor conviction under this section shall not constitute a conviction for petty theft.
(f) This section shall not be construed to repeal, modify, or weaken any existing legal prohibitions against the taking of private property.
(g) For purposes of this section, an issue is current if no more than half of the period of time until the distribution of the next issue has passed.