Guest opinion: Newspaper theft law protects readers’ constitutional rights
Former state representative
Sometimes when you see something that is wrong, you know you need to do something about it.
Nine years ago, I was serving as the state representative in District 56, representing the people of Eagle, Lake and Summit counties in the Colorado House of Representatives. Someone was upset about something written in one of the free distribution newspapers in my district and decided the best way to stop everyone else in town from seeing it would be to steal all the newspapers.
The theft of those newspapers was damaging to virtually all of my constituents. The people who depended on that paper for news and information were victims as the thieves effectively violated their First Amendment rights to benefit from a free press when they censored that newspaper by stealing all the copies. The businesses that advertised in the paper spent hard-earned money and made business decisions based upon the advertisements they’d purchased were hurt when the entire run of that newspaper was stolen for the express purpose of making sure that no one, including their customers and potential customers, would ever see anything printed in it.
Finally, the newspaper itself was hurt. It lost financially as its investment to make the newspaper available was stolen, but even more so by a thief who stole the paper’s right to communicate with its community.
When local prosecutors declined to prosecute the case because they said they no crime had been committed under Colorado law because they couldn’t establish a value for newspapers that were distributed to the public without cost, I knew something had to be done.
Working with representatives of law enforcement, business organizations and newspapers, Sen. Jack Taylor and I introduced House Bill 1057 in 2004. The bill made it a crime to steal newspapers for the purpose of depriving other people access to information. It passed the legislature by huge margins and was signed into law by Gov. Bill Owens.
I was shocked to hear earlier this year that a task force of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice was considering recommending doing away with the newspaper theft law and was even more amazed that the full commission has now recommended repeal to the Legislature.
It seems pretty simple to me. You don’t take things that don’t belong to you. But beyond that, we carefully crafted HB 1057 to only bring the law into these crimes when it could be proved that the theft took place to deprive other people of the right to read what was printed in the newspaper.
If the Legislature accepts this ill-conceived recommendation to repeal the law, it will create open season on a free press as stealing papers for the purpose of censoring information will be legalized in Colorado. I urge the CCJJ to reconsider its flawed recommendation, but if it goes forward, the Legislature owes it to all Coloradans to swiftly kill the bill and leave existing protections in place.
Carl Miller, D-Leadville, served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1997 until 2004. He also served as a Lake County commissioner and as a member of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
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