A bill that would expressly make it a crime to steal multiple copies of freely distributed newspapers passed through the State Legislature without a dissenting vote on August 14 and now goes to the governor for signature. Each year, tens of thousands of newspapers are taken in bulk from newsracks and distribution points in California in order to obtain cash from recycling centers or because of an unpopular viewpoint expressed in an article, editorial or advertisement. Local law enforcement agencies may say they are powerless to prosecute the thefts because the newspapers are complimentary, have no fair market value and therefore could not be stolen.
Assembly Republican Leader George Plescia (R-La Jolla) authored the bill, AB 2612. He told the Mirror: By protecting the distribution of free newspapers across our state, we will safeguard the First Amendment rights of the writers, while ensuring that a diverse array of thoughts and ideas enter the political dialogue. We should not forget that while the theft of free newspapers suppresses divergent points of view, it also shortchanges the ability of advertisers to sell their products to targeted audiences through paid advertising. Stealing free newspapers undermines the fundamental values of free expression and free enterprise that we cherish as Americans, and I am hopeful that we can come together as Californians to protect these important values through my legislation.
Remember Jeff Smith the Jimmy Stewart character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibustering himself hoarse on the floor of the U.S. Senate, while Boss Taylor s Machine had its media outlets spreading lies about his campaign for a boys camp? Jeff s little army of neighbors and kids printed their own newspaper on a backyard press to spread The Truth, but The Machine s goons ran the kids and their red wagons off the road and stole their free newspapers.
It s a crime! And that s what the Legislature has proclaimed with Assembly Bill 2612, which has now passed through both houses without a nay vote. Whether freely distributed newspapers are removed because someone disagrees with the ideas expressed in them or taken to recycling centers for cash, the effect is to deprive readers of a valuable source of information and ideas, says the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA).
Such theft also deprives advertisers of the public exposure that they pay for in community newspapers, and it is the advertisers payments that put these newspapers on the streets and doorsteps of the community and provide the local news and public forum that enliven public life.
The Mirror, of course, has a stake in this legislation. We have suffered losses from bulk theft of our newspapers, said Michael Rosenthal, publisher of the Mirror. Our home deliveries and door-to-door business distribution have not been affected, but advertisers deserve the maximum exposure that newsracks provide and that we pay for through production and delivery costs. Not to mention the cost to the community in terms of denied access to information and ideas.
College publications are disproportionally affected by…content or viewpoint discrimination, according to the CNPA, which sponsored AB 2612. College newspaper thefts occurred during the 2004-2005 school year at East Los Angeles College (1,000 copies), USC (4,000 copies), Cal State Long Beach (7,000 copies), U.C. Santa Barbara (300 copies), Loyola Marymount University (4,000 copies), Cal State Los Angeles (6,000 copies) and Cal State Northridge (8,000 copies), CNPA said.
The cities of San Francisco and Berkeley have each passed ordinances that effectively outlaw the theft of freely distributed newspapers. The Legislature s action in adopting AB 2612 makes the prohibition clear on a statewide basis. It provides:
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.
A first violation would be an infraction. A second or subsequent violation would be either an infraction or a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment of up to 10 days in a county jail, a fine of up to $500, or both imprisonment and a fine. The court would be able to order community service in lieu of jail time or a fine in the amount of 20 hours for an infraction and 40 hours for a misdemeanor.