Colorado lawmakers to consider bill reclassifying newspaper thefts

COLORADO — A bill that would reclassify newspaper theft in Colorado has passed the state’s House of Representatives and is waiting now for consideration in the Senate.

The bill comes as a compromise after a recommendation by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice last year to eliminate the state’s newspaper theft law. Currently, taking more than five free newspapers with the intention of keeping people from reading the paper is considered newspaper theft.

Taking free newspapers could not truly be labeled as theft, the commission argued, because there is no monetary value assigned to the paper.

Hearing word of this recommendation, members of the Colorado Press Association quickly raised their concerns.

“The obvious reason is when you steal something that doesn’t belong to you or depriving people from what they are entitled to have, it is criminal,” said Samantha Johnston, executive director of the Colorado Press Association. “And taking that section out of the law would in fact make it legal. And we took issue with that.”

State Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder) sponsored a new bill that will serve as a compromise between the Commission and the Colorado Press Association.

Though Rep. Levy was originally behind the Commission’s notion to completely do away with newspaper theft, she said her stance changed once she did more research about the occurrences.

“I couldn’t imagine that people would do that regularly, but I found out that’s not the case,” Rep. Levy said. “Newspaper theft was more prevalent than we were aware of.”

Nationally, there have been 524,525 copies of student newspapers reported stolen since 2000, according to records compiled by the Student Press Law Center. Johnston says those numbers would be a lot higher if it weren’t for statutes like Colorado’s.

“While it may not get used a lot, this is a deterrent for sure,” Johnston said. “A lot of newspapers take action because they have a statute to stand behind.”

The compromise legislation would change the name of the theft statute and move newspaper thefts to the unclassified misdemeanors section. The consequence for taking newspapers will be fines varying from $1000 to $5000 given the quantity of papers taken, the same as the current penalty.

Levy said that she is proud of the bill, which passed in the House on Feb. 4, and thinks that the two sides came together to create “a good solution.”

Johnston says that the Colorado Press Association appreciates Levy’s efforts but believes much of the conflict could have been avoided if newspaper editors were part of the commission’s original discussions last year.

“In the end it accomplishes the same result,” Johnston said. “We didn’t see any need to go through this process in the first place. We think it became an issue over nothing at all. We don’t really care what the title as long as the act is still criminal.”

By Christina Downs, SPLC staff writer. Contact Downs by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.