The Daily Nexus and many of its colleagues received a legal boon this summer as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill protecting college publications’ freedom from censorship and another bill creating consequences for thieves of free newspapers.
Assemblyman Leland Yee, from the 12th district in the Bay Area, authored Assembly Bill 2581, which became a law on Aug. 28. It makes California the first state in the nation to guarantee college press and media freedom from censorship from university administrators.
On Sept. 11, Schwarzenegger signed AB 2612, a law which makes it an infraction to take more than 25 copies of a free newspaper for the purpose of recycling, trading or selling, depriving individuals the opportunity to read the paper or to ruin the campaign of a business competitor.
Assembly Minority Leader George Plescia of the 75th district in San Diego authored AB 2612, which goes into effect Jan. 1.
Newspaper theft consequences include a maximum $250 fine for first-time offenders and a maximum $500 fine with the possibility of jail time for secondary offenders.
Morgan Crinkle, spokesperson for Assemblyman Plescia, said AB 2612 will make it easier for law enforcement to convict newspaper thieves.
“It isn’t going to solve every problem in the world, and there’s going to be cases where the person doesn’t get caught, but this gives law enforcement the tools they need to prosecute these cases,” Crinkle said. “Before there was so much ambiguity in the law that they couldn’t put a value on it.”
Crinkle said passage of the bill occurred for two main reasons. The recurring theft of a free Chula Vista newspaper pressured legislators to act, as did the support of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a non-profit trade organization that represents daily and weekly California newspapers.
Several copies of the Chula Vista paper have been stolen on multiple occasions for the purpose of recycling, Crinkle said.
“Chula Vista [the publication] was being stolen by bundles, taken across the border and sold to a recycling plant in Mexico,” Crinkle said. “It’s not only stifling first amendment rights; it’s also affecting the businesses that advertise in those papers.”
Colleges throughout the nation have encountered theft of campus newspapers over the years, including at the University of Florida, Pennsylvania State University, University of Texas-Austin, the University of Kentucky and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
On Jan. 14, 2004, an estimated 2,300 copies of the Daily Nexus were placed in 10 trashcans around campus. The thief was never identified by local law enforcement.
A few years before that incident, in the spring of 1997, thousands of copies of the Daily Nexus were taken off the racks twice in one week. The second incident in the week involved seven members of Associated Students, including then-president Russell Bartholow. The seven A.S. members took over 500 copies of the Daily Nexus off newsstands and dumped them into the Daily Nexus editorial office.
“They removed copies from the distribution boxes and brought them back to the Nexus office in protest of an editorial published the previous day,” said Joseph Navarro, associate dean of students and judicial affairs. “The conduct committee ruled that it didn’t matter that the papers were ‘free’ or that they were returned to the Nexus. Taking them out of their distribution boxes constituted theft and a violation of the Nexus’s freedom of expression.”
The staff editorial the A.S. members were protesting was a critique of an A.S. Legislative Council decision to use $20,000 from its reserves to commence fundraising efforts for a fountain in front of Davidson Library.
The A.S. members, who dubbed themselves Students Against Vicious Editorials, were charged with violating campus regulations and taken to campus court where they pled guilty.
While Navarro said the new law may discourage newspaper theft and will make it more difficult for thieves to contest charges, he said he thought it will still be difficult to identify perpetrators.
“AB 2612 may help deter newspaper theft – I certainly hope so,” Navarro said. “The only difficulty in enforcing such a policy is finding the perpetrators; they aren’t always apprehended.”
Similar to AB 2612 is a city ordinance passed in Berkeley, California in 2003. The ordinance was passed one year after Mayor Tom Bates pled guilty to stealing 1,000 copies of the Daily Californian from the University of California, Berkeley. The issue contained an editorial endorsement of Bates’ political opponent.
The Berkeley ordinance applies penalties based on petty theft law, including the possibility of a $1,000 fine and up to a year of jail time.
The other recently passed bill, AB 2581, forbids censorship and prior restraint of college press and media.
The bill was written in response to the Hosty v. Carter decision, a court case from the 7th circuit court of appeals that limits free expression rights for college level press in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Adam Keigwin, press secretary for Assemblyman Leland Yee, said the new law simultaneously guarantees freedom and responsibility. With protection from university administrators, he said, students will need to practice fair and accurate reporting.
“The main thing for California college students is that they have a responsibility to be the watch dogs on campus,” Keigwin said. “Students are able to practice whatever reporting they see fit. … with this right comes a responsibility.”
Navarro said he thoroughly supports AB 2581 because of his strong belief in freedom of expression.
“I enthusiastically support AB 2581,” Navarro said. “Because of my long-standing commitment to freedom of expression, I don’t believe there should be any restrictions on speech other than the ones legally in place or ones that are self-imposed.”