Eight years ago Colorado legislators passed a law that made it a crime to steal free-distribution newspapers such as the Sky-Hi News.
Now, the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice - which reviews state laws and makes recommendations to the Legislature about their status - has recommended doing away with the law. In essence, the commission says it's OK to steal every single copy of the local newspaper, even if it is done for the sole purpose of preventing publication of a story.
Since the commission has identified it as a "boutique" (unnecessary) law, the law will go before the state Legislature in 2013, where we will join with the Colorado Press Association to vehemently protest its elimination.
For starters, members of the commission made it clear they don't differentiate between free "shopper"-style publications and community newspapers distributed at no charge. Had they taken the time to ask almost anyone in Grand County, they might have learned that's where most people get their local news.
Alas, one member of the commission made his view of this publication - and by extension and his vote, all free-distribution newspapers - abundantly clear. According to a Denver Post story, Charles Garcia had this to say:
"Living in Granby, in Grand Lake, I can tell you most people walk by the Sky-Hi News and don't read it. I doubt anybody is stealing them."
Then perhaps Mr. Garcia, a man of letters judging by a quick internet search, can tell all of you who are reading this where about 11,000 copies of the Sky-Hi News go each week when they disappear from our newsstands.
Should any readers out there happen to know Mr. Garcia, we'd encourage them to share their thoughts with him regarding his dim view of the First Amendment and readers' right to be informed about what's happening in their communities.
But then, Garcia and his like-minded commission colleagues apparently can't be bothered to distinguish between something that's free and something that has no value.
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. While many paid-circulation papers are suffering, we've held steady since the initial downturn of the "Great Recession" 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. Stealing newspapers to prevent access to information is censorship in its most pure form.
Moreover, there is a hard cost for each newspaper we print (it's about $1.25), but beyond that is the value of the content.
When papers are stolen, it deprives readers of valuable news and advertising, and it deprives 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?
Which brings us to another member of the commission and her telling take on this issue. State Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, seems particularly eager for the Legislature to kill this law. And her view matters here because, barring the unforeseen, she is likely to be "representing" Grand County at the Statehouse come next January when the county becomes part of her new district.
Among others, Levy raises the objection that as the law stands, homeless people could be prosecuted for taking free papers out of a newsstand and sleeping under them. Apologies to Dave Barry, we're not making this up.
She expressed that very concern to officials at the Colorado Press Association and, obviously, places a higher value on an off-Pearl Street vagrant's "right" to comfortable sleeping arrangements than she does on the rights of private enterprises to protect their legitimate business and constitutional interests.
One could hazard a guess that most Grand County voters don't share that view and will express themselves accordingly come Election Day.
While we appreciate that members of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice have a difficult task, we find it extraordinary that they voted to kill this law without better familiarizing themselves 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 sound reasons. It's hard to say how much of a deterrent this law really is, but certainly as a newspaper company we would prefer to be able to assert our right to protect our distribution stream as well as our readers' access to our publications.
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.