Snatching free copies of the Southeast Texas Record newspaper may not have gotten Jerry Little of Port Neches in trouble yet, but it could. It did for a University of Texas at Austin student who in 1995 pleaded guilty to stealing copies of the Daily Texan and served six months probation. In 1996, a San Francisco police chief and two officers seized about 2,000 copies of the San Francisco Bay Times and were later ordered to pay the newspaper $5,600 for economic losses and $30,000 to its publisher for emotional distress. The case was believed to be the first in the country holding that the taking of "free" newspapers violates a publisher's civil rights.
This week Record staff observed Little removing approximately 100 Southeast Texas Record papers from the news rack at the Jefferson County Courthouse.
He freely admitted to taking the papers and vowed to continue.
Little has been attending an ongoing trial in Jefferson County involving DuPont and the family of a former employee, Willis Whisnat. The family alleges Whisnat died from asbestos exposure at the Beaumont plant.
The Record has been covering the Whisnat trial for five weeks, and in that time has noticed its news rack being emptied in an unusual manner.
On Monday, March 17, Record staffers Marilyn Tennissen and David Yates began surveillance of its courthouse news rack to see what was happening to the weekly free papers.
At around 8:30 a.m., Tennissen witnessed a man in a tan jacket remove more than half of the papers from the rack and take them into the first floor men's room.
When the man exited the men's room moments later, he was empty handed.
The man, who later identified himself to Yates as Jerry Little, told the Record editor that he was keeping the papers in the men's room so that "he could give copies to his children."
Yates later found the papers in the trash can of the men's room.
A few minutes later, Little removed the rest of the papers from the rack and placed them in his truck parked near the Jefferson County Courthouse.
After replenishing the rack, Yates observed Little removing the new papers from the rack.
It was at that time that Yates and Little exchanged names, and Yates verified that Little has been present in Judge Donald Floyd's courtroom during the Whisnat trial.
"As long as you (Yates) refill them, I'm going to keep taking them," Little said.
Little told Tennissen, "If I've committed a crime, then charge me."
It's a crime
In 1995, University of Texas student Carrado Giovanella pleaded guilty to theft charges after campus police arrested him for stealing 5,800 copies of the university's free paper, the Daily Texan.
According to a Sept. 8, 1995 report in the Daily Texan, Giovanella told police he took the papers after the newspaper published an article about his arrest on an outstanding warrant for writing bad checks. Police had discovered the outstanding warrant after learning Giovanella had forged a letter of recommendation when applying to the university.
Texas Student Publications pressed charges against Giovanella, "more for the principle of the theft than the value of the loss, estimated at $1,450," the Daily Texan reported.
The Southeast Texas Record reported the incident involving Little to the Beaumont Police Department on Monday, but today Sgt. Derrick Fowler told Tennissen he could not find a legal reason to charge Little.
Fowler said he consulted with his lieutenant and went to the courthouse to investigate and photograph the Record news rack.
"I looked at the display, and it says 'free,'" the detective said. "If it's free, it's free."
Since many "free newspaper" theft cases involve student newspapers on university campuses, the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. keeps track of prosecutions and laws on the subject.
A compilation by the center in 2005 cited the following instances that have resulted in prosecution:
In January 2003 in Berkeley, Calif., Mayor Tom Bates pled guilty and was fined for his role in trashing 1,000 copies of the Nov. 4, 2002, edition of the University of California at Berkeley's student newspaper, which carried an editorial endorsement of his mayoral opponent. Berkeley lawmakers later made it a crime to steal free newspapers.
In 1988, criminal charges were filed against four students at the University of Florida in connection with the confiscation of about 1,500 copies of the Florida Review.
In 1994, two journalism graduates at Penn State agreed to enter a rehabilitation program and paid the paper restitution after being charged with stealing 4,000 copies of The Lionhearted.
In 2006, more than 8,500 issues of the University of Kentucky Chronicle were stolen and three students pleaded guilty to a third-degree criminal mischief charge.
Three states have laws against the theft of free newspapers -- Maryland, Colorado and California.
Maryland passed such a law in 1994. In 2004, Colorado made stealing free newspapers a misdemeanor, punishable with fines up to $5,000.
California's law took effect Jan. 1, 2007, and punishes offenders taking more than 25 copies of a free newspaper. The penalty is $250 for the first offense and can reach $500 and jail time for repeat offenses.
Attorney and journalist John Browning of Dallas said there could also be a civil recourse for taking newspapers, even if they are free.
"Advertisers pay to have their ads seen," Browning said. "They could consider it a breach of contract."
More information can be found on the Student Press Law Center Web site's Newspaper Theft Forum,www.splc.org/newspapertheft.asp.