Make theft of free newspapers civil matter, lawmaker suggests after panel’s finding

Even though it’s unknown if any lawmaker who sits on a state criminal justice panel plans to introduce a bill doing away with Colorado’s newspaper theft law, a Boulder legislator has come up with a compromise.

Instead of making it illegal to take numerous copies of free newspapers with the intent of preventing others from seeing that edition, Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, is suggesting removing it from the state’s criminal code, making it a civil matter instead.

The issue arose in July when the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which reviews the state’s criminal laws and recommends changes, voted to do away with the law along with a slew of other specialized crimes.

The commission upheld that vote again in September after more than a hundred people, including newspaper publishers and business people from around the state, asked the panel to reconsider.

Unlike other legislation review panels formed by the Colorado General Assembly, recommendations by the commission don’t necessary get introduced into the next legislative session.

But just in case one does, Levy said it was time to step in and settle the matter.

“The existing law is flawed because the true value cannot reasonably be established for a product that is distributed without cost,” Levy said. “Under this new proposal, we recognize that the people who read, advertise in and publish newspapers are harmed when papers are taken to deprive people of access to information, but we do so in a way that is more consistent with our other laws.”

The law came about nearly a decade ago after someone removed copies of a newspaper in Eagle County because they didn’t like an article printed in it, according to former Rep. Carl Miller, a Leadville Republican who represented part of the county at the time.

That’s when he and then-state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, introduced a bill making it a crime to steal give-away newspapers with the intent of preventing others from seeing it. Theft laws already cover newspapers that charge for each copy because they have a clear value.

Aside from First Amendment considerations, Miller and Taylor said, free newspapers have a value even if there is no charge for them.

Levy said her bill will repeal the newspaper theft statute and replace it with the crime of interference with the lawful distribution of a newspaper.


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