It was only eight years ago that a new law was passed in Colorado that made it a crime to steal free-distribution newspapers such as the Summit Daily News. 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 Summit Daily from boxes in Breckenridge.
Since the commission has identified it as a "boutique" or unnecessary law, it will go before the state Legislature in 2012, where 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 Summit 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 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 (it's about $1.25), 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 be seen as anything other than a true theft, both of information and a material good?
While we appreciate that the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice sifts through the statutes and suggest elimination of redundant, outdated or otherwise unnecessary laws, we find it extraordinary that they voted to kill this law without familiarizing themselves more with the circumstances of free-distribution newspapers - and also that they 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 in 2013 and retain the law.