VIRGINIA–Newspapers distributed freely in Northern Virginia remained unprotected from theft in mid-April after Republican Gov. George Allen vetoed legislation that would have outlawed taking the publications with an attempt “to impede or prevent distribution.”
Del. Bob Hull (D-Fairfax) sponsored the bill which would have prohibited a person from taking more than five free newspapers with the attempt to hamper distribution. Violations would have been punished with a fine of up to $500.
The taking of free newspapers became an issue after multiple copies of the Washington Blade, a newspaper devoted to gay issues, were removed from public libraries in Virginia’s Fairfax County to prevent distribution among young readers.
Blade copies stolen from an Arlington resident’s apartment building prompted the Arlington County Board to urge passage of a law similar to Hull’s in its list of legislative recommendations sent to Richmond last fall. Hull said gay newspapers, however, were discussed only once during the bill’s legislative hearings.
Allen said after the veto that he understood the underlying objective of the bill, but the “intent element of this new offense makes an otherwise problematic statute impractical and unenforceable.”
“This legislation criminalizes the removal of free items based on the state of mind of the actor,” Allen wrote in a memo accompanying his late March veto.
But Hull said he did not understand Allen’s difficulty with the “intent” requirement because the word is used frequently in existing Virginia codes. If the governor questioned intent in committing a crime, most state laws would not be enforceable, he said.
Hull said he plans to re-introduce the bill — which is similar to a measure enacted by the Maryland legislature in 1994 — in the next legislative session. (H.R. 1747)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.