Don’t kill a good law
July 19, 2012
It was only eight years ago that Colorado passed a new law that made it a crime to steal free-distribution newspapers such as The Aspen Times. Now, the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice – which reviews state laws and makes recommendations to the Legislature on their status – has recommended doing away with the law.
In essence, the commission is saying it’s OK, in one recent example, for a person who doesn’t want people to read of his alleged criminal activity to steal every single copy of the Times from boxes in Aspen.
Since the commission has identified it as a “boutique,” or unnecessary, law, it will go before the state Legislature this year, when we will join with the Colorado Press Association and other free-distribution newspapers around the state to vehemently protest its elimination. For starters, members of the commission made it clear they don’t differentiate between free “shopper”-style publications and legitimate newspapers distributed at no charge. Had they taken the time to ask almost anyone in Pitkin County, they might have learned that’s where most people get their local news and that a very high value is assigned to the publication.
As a company, we decided long ago that the best way to provide information to our readers is through a free-distribution model, and our readers and advertisers seem to agree that this is the best approach in our market. While many paid-circulation papers around the state and country are suffering, we’ve held steady and continue to grow.
Beyond the issue of the obvious injustice and inconvenience of someone stealing all the newspapers from a particular area on a given day is the First Amendment right to free speech. No doubt the commission would view the snipping of a cable line or the destruction of a radio antenna as a “real” crime, but from the perspective of speech, the result is the same. Stealing newspapers to prevent access to information is censorship in its most pure form, and any suggestion that because a single copy of a newspaper is provided free lessens the crime simply ignores the facts on the ground.
There is a hard cost for us for each newspaper we print, but beyond that is the value of the content within. When papers are stolen, it deprives readers of valuable information in the form of news and advertising, and it deprives our advertisers of the reach to customers they’ve paid us to provide. How can that represent anything other than a true theft both of information and a material good?
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While we appreciate that the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice sifts through the statutes and suggests elimination of redundant, outdated or otherwise unnecessary laws, we find it extraordinary that it voted to kill this law without familiarizing itself more with the circumstances of free-distribution newspapers – and also that it would ignore the fact that it was put into place less than a decade ago for some very good reasons.
It’s hard to say how much of a deterrent this law really is, but certainly as a newspaper company, we would like to be able to assert our right to protect our distribution stream as well as our readers’ access to our publication. Removing the law says, quite simply, it’s OK to steal, and we’re confident the state Legislature will see it that way and retain the law.