RALEIGH — Every day important notices are published in the pages of newspapers across North Carolina. These notices catalog government actions in cases of bid notices, changes in zoning, hearing notices, auctions, property transfers, delinquent tax notices and more. Did you know there are efforts, once again, to move important public notices out of print newspapers and onto government websites?
The demographics of a newspaper reader tend to be an older audience, especially in rural areas. For this older, and in some cases lower income, audience, moving notices to online government websites will miss a large segment of our state population. Any law that would restrict access is bad policy in our view.
If recent legislation proposed by Sen Trudy Wade, Senate Bill 343, became law that very thing would happen. A key point of this bill would move legal notices to local government websites – out of a printed local independent newspaper.
The anti-right to know bill sponsored by Senator Wade, SB 343, is a repeat of the effort over the last several General Assembly sessions to effectively eliminate government notice advertising in newspapers by making newspaper publication optional for government agencies. As described by former Republican lawyer- House member Bonner Stiller, giving local governments the choice to suspend notice publication to the public in newspapers would “create havoc” for free press rights every time a newspaper criticized the government.
Newspapers receive revenue for providing the service of publishing, archiving and preserving these notices. It is an important check and balance service that newspapers have provided to local governments for decades, and yes they are paid for it. These notices do not subsidize the operation of small town newspapers, but it is a significant revenue stream. Without this revenue source we could lose several local community newspapers. That is a loss of jobs, an independent free press and more importantly the voice of a community.
Newspapers, in a compromise bill, are increasing access and reducing costs.
The North Carolina Press Association and its members support H 572 (Ross, Davis, Malone, S. Martin, Setzer) and S 435 (Sanderson, Dunn, Horner, Britt, Jackson, Rabin) which preserves the public’s right to know and is a true compromise to deliver public notice to all audiences – in print AND online. The bills, modeled on the law passed by the Florida Legislature in 2012, 1) continue the requirement that legal notices be published in newspapers of general, paid circulation and 2) add the requirement that newspapers taking legal ads also publish the notices on their websites and upload them to the NCPA-operated, statewide website for legals. In this way, the legal notices are distributed far beyond the reach of any government-operated website and can reach those in areas currently without internet service, those unable to afford internet service, and those disinclined to read notices on government websites. Cities and counties required to publish a legal notice more than once are charged no more than 85% of the price for the first notice for all subsequent publications.
This compromise legislation is identical to that which passed the North Carolina House of Representatives 115 to 4 in 2015. The public-at-large should hope for the same support this session.
Why not just put them on government websites?
– Because as many as one-third of North Carolinians do not have internet access, can’t afford it, and would not visit government operated websites even if they had internet access. Newspapers continue to reach an overwhelming amount of citizens compared to county websites – in some cases as much as 3 to 1. This bill would bury notices on a website that few if any citizens visit and effectively would kill the public’s right to know.
This also would allow the fox to guard the hen house. Newspapers are an independent third party responsible for printing and archiving a permanent record of these notices – who would be held accountable if these notices were only required to post on a government run website?
Please contact the sponsors of Senate Bill 343 Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) (919) 733-5856, Sen. Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland) (919) 733-5776 and Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) (919) 733-5655 and your local delegation to let them know you OPPOSE this legislation. Tell them you support the compromise bills backed by the NCPA that gives access to all North Carolinians and preserves your right to know.
Please contact NCPA for any legislative questions 919-516-8013 www.ncpress.com.
North Carolina Press Association
Since 1843 NCPA has supported North Carolina newspapers, readership and advertising. We work to protect the public’s right to know through the defense of open government and First Amendment freedoms, and we help maintain the public’s access to local, state and federal governments.