Free newspaper theft may be outlawed

Stealing free newspapers may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it happens, and it is usually designed to suppress certain information or messages. Campus newspapers are particular targets.

For instance, the Sigma Chi fraternity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill stole more than 10,000 copies of a 2006 issue of the Daily Tar Heel that reported on the frat’s three-year suspension for hazing. During that semester alone, the First Amendment Center reported at least 11 cases of suppression by theft wielded against student newspapers around the nation.

In 2002, Berkeley, Cal., Mayor Tom Bates pleaded guilty to stealing 1,000 copies of the Daily Californian, a campus newspaper that endorsed his opponent.

Las Vegas City Life editor Steve Sebelius writes that it “happened to UNLV’s award winning student newspaper, the Rebel Yell, not so long ago after a story was published on Mideast violence.”

In 1977, an entire run of the UNR Sagebrush was stolen from all its distribution points around campus just after they had been dropped off in the early morning hours. It was apparently done to keep the newspaper’s editorial endorsement in a student election from getting out. (A second run was printed at the Sparks Tribune and redistributed.)

Assemblymember Ruben Kihuen of Clark County has introduced Assembly Bill 257 making the taking of more than 10 copies of a free newspaper a misdemeanor. First time offenses would be punishable by a fine of up to $250, second time offenses by up to 10 days in jail, a $500 fine, or both. Part or all of the penalties could be served in community service.

At least three states have laws against the theft of free newspapers. Maryland is believed to be the first state, with a 1994 law, followed by Colorado and then California.