NC House committee rejects bill to take public notice out of newspapers

Sep 15, 2011

By Teri Saylor

RALEIGH, NC—A measure in North Carolina that would have allowed local governments to post public notices on their own websites in lieu of placing them in newspapers was defeated in a House of Representatives Government Committee on May 12.

After lengthy debate, House members voted 21-10 to turn back the measure that city and county organizations said would save local governments $6 million a year.

Richard Gard, president and publisher of Missouri Lawyers Weekly, monitored the legislation on behalf of The Dolan Co., which owns two legal newspapers in North Carolina (North Carolina Lawyers Weekly and the Mecklenburg Times) and said that although local governments purport to save taxpayers money by taking legal notices out of newspapers, getting into the electronic publishing business likely would be more costly than paying for advertising.

“Governments’ interest in publishing legals is more about control than cost savings,” Gard said.

Public notice laws in North Carolina have been in place for more than a half century and ensure that citizens know about actions being considered or taken by their government.

Rep. Paul Leubke, D-Durham, said he wondered how many citizens across the state have access to the Internet and cautioned his fellow lawmakers that taking public notices out of newspapers would limit access to important information.

“Having no newspaper ads denies our constituents major access to information that is important to them,” Leubke said. “It would be a big mistake to take legals out of newspapers and it would move us away from involving citizens in the government process.”

An amendment to require newspapers to run legal notices as free public service announcements was accepted, but ultimately went down, along with the bill.

Rick Thames, executive editor of The Charlotte Observer, and a past president of the North Carolina Press Association, told the committee that nothing in existing law would require public notices to run in newspapers only.

“Public notice ads could run on websites in addition to newspapers,” he said.

But ultimately legislators, worried about the lack of Internet access in their rural areas, about constituents who could not afford to pay for an Internet connection and others who wanted to keep their local newspapers in business, turned back local government.

Gard complimented the NCPA for effectively beating back the legislation, and emphasized that although advocating for senior citizens and Internet connectivity issues make compelling arguments for keeping legals off of government websites, it is important to advocate for the need to keep legal notices independent of government bent on policing itself.

“We need to hammer home the newspaper as an independent honest broker of advertising,” he said.

Still he was impressed with the large contingent of newspaper publishers and editors that came from all areas of the state, especially from the districts where members of the House Government Committee reside.

“The newspapers made a real impact on the outcome of the meeting,” he said. “It showed in the debate that those newspaper publishers and editors had visited committee members before the meeting. We as publishers need to be vigilant and make the case for keeping public notice in newspapers.”

A companion bill is assigned to a North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee members had planned to debate the bill on May 19, but it was pulled from the calendar.

Across the country, state legislators are keeping newspaper associations and publishers busy fighting similar laws.