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Steal This Paper

Becky O'Malley
Friday July 04, 2003

Just after we took on the job of resurrecting the Berkeley Daily Planet, Mayor-elect Tom Bates got some bad publicity for trashing copies of the Daily Californian which endorsed his opponent. Wags opined that if he’d recycled them instead, it would have been less shocking to Berkeley. Friends suggested to us that the first edition of the revived Planet should be headlined “Steal This Paper,” homage (for those of you too young to remember) to yippie Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book.” The idea made us laugh, but we didn’t use it. 

It’s funny to think that you can steal something free, but it’s actually illegal to take more than your share of copies of free papers. This law was enacted to prevent recyclers from taking papers from news racks and selling them as waste paper. It hasn’t stopped the practice, but it’s slowed it down. 

People still, unfortunately, steal newspapers when they disagree with their content. Recently, copies of the Daily Cal were snatched, probably because the snatchers thought that a news story had been reported in a racist way. We sympathize, but it’s just a bad idea to try to suppress speech you disagree with. The best antidote to speech you don’t like is more speech. Rather that stealing those papers, the critics should have written to the Daily Cal, or to other publications if the Daily Cal rejected their letters, explaining exactly why the coverage seemed racist, and what the alternative should have been. That way, everyone learns something. 

Which brings us to the crisis du jour. When the last two issues of the Daily Planet went on the stands, last Tuesday and Friday, we received early morning calls from concerned readers saying there were no copies at their regular pickup points at nine in the morning. Copies are dropped early on publication day, and they usually take at least a day to disappear into the hands of readers. We’d love to believe that we’ve had a sudden and dramatic surge in readership, but we don’t really think that’s the case. 

Last Friday, one reported empty box was near Andronico’s on University, close to the building project at 1392 University which was pictured on the front page of that edition. Maybe the construction workers took a bunch of copies home to show to their families. On Tuesday, eight boxes on North Shattuck were cleaned out by 9:30 a.m. Each had been filled with at least a hundred copies a couple of hours before. There’s no easy explanation for this loss. 

There are two obvious possibilities. First, someone could be stealing newspapers to sell for recycling. It does seem odd, though, that the other free papers in the same locations were still there after the Planet disappeared. The other possibility is more disheartening. Maybe the editorial content rubbed someone the wrong way. But it is completely unnecessary to destroy copies of the Planet to express a different point of view. The opinion pages are always open to dissent. We love dissent. Controversy sells papers. 

We haven’t reported this problem to the police, because we think they probably have better things to do. But we would like to enlist the help of our loyal readers, particularly the early risers among you. Please call the Planet office, 841-5600, if you see anyone taking lots of papers out of boxes. A couple of our distributors do pick up copies for re-distribution from boxes, so you shouldn’t assume that the person you see doing this is a thief. Just give us a description, and we’ll check it out. And of course call us when any box is empty for any reason, and we’ll get it re-filled. 

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the Planet’s Fourth of July editorial. We’ve always liked the free speech part of the patriotic ideology, even though it’s honored more often in the breach than in the observance. Increasingly, protecting free speech is everyone’s job—we certainly can’t rely on the Bush government to do it for us. So please help the Planet keep information flowing. 

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Planet.