A proposal to dump sewage sludge from Austin, Texas, onto ranchland miles away near the Colorado River may have gone unnoticed if not for a public notice printed in the local newspaper. Informed by the public notice of the permit application and outraged at the thought of having some of the 100,000 cubic yards of Austin’s “biosolids” dumped in their backyard, local residents protested, and the dumping company eventually withdrew its application.
Laws requiring public notices to be printed in local newspapers are powerful transparency tools. They’re also a critical source of funding for small newspapers battered by financial losses that are putting them out of business at an alarming rate. Despite these benefits, however, two disturbing trends threaten the public’s right to know.
The first is government officials retaliating against media outlets whose coverage they dislike by threatening or actually revoking contracts to print public notices. This year, for example, the new mayor of Johnston, Rhode Island, yanked a public notice contract from a newspaper days after his inauguration.
The newspaper’s publisher said the mayor had made his displeasure with the outlet’s reporting clear in private meetings and threatened to revoke advertising contracts unless the editor was fired. The mayor denied that the decision had to do with the newspaper’s coverage but then publicly criticized its reporting, including about public corruption.
Retaliation against newspapers using public notice contracts is not new, and it’s happening around the country. It also violates the First Amendment. For example, the Wet Mountain Tribune recently settled a lawsuit it brought against officials in Custer County, Colorado, alleging that officials violated the newspaper’s First Amendment rights by withdrawing their public notice contract in retaliation for critical reporting. The county revoked the contract after the newspaper questioned the decision to appoint a public health official with dubious credentials in the midst of the pandemic.
Perhaps because they’ve learned not to single out specific newspapers for retaliation, some government officials are trying a second tactic: changing laws that require public notices to be published in newspapers altogether. Last year in Florida, for instance, Gov. Ron DeSantis — no friend of the free press — signed a law that gives local governments the option to provide public notices on their websites, rather than in community newspapers.
In another recent example, a quirk of Kansas law has allowed localities to exempt themselves from the state law requiring publication of public notices in local newspapers. Several bills that would eliminate the requirement that public notices be published in newspapers were introduced in other states in 2023.
Some argue that requiring public notices in newspapers is outdated now that they can be posted on government websites instead. But, despite the undeniable decline of print journalism, newspapers remain an important source of information for many, especially older people and people without internet access. The public is also much more likely to happen upon important public notices while flipping through a newspaper than by perusing government websites. Afterall, when was the last time you visited a government website just to browse?
Proponents of these bills also argue that publishing public notices in newspapers is too expensive. Aside from the fact that public notice contracts are a drop in the bucket for many municipalities’ budgets, this argument ignores the significant economic benefit to a community from a local news outlet. Government payments for public notices in local papers provide vital transparency for the public and allow local newspapers to survive. That’s money well spent.
While public notices aren’t usually the most scintillating part of the news, they’re key to newspapers’ financial survival and an important source of information for the public. We’re rightfully outraged when politicians try to silence the press by denying them access to sources or bringing meritless lawsuits. Every community that is still fortunate enough to have a local newspaper must be on alert about the pernicious effects of government officials trying to censor the press through denials of public notice contracts, too.