Public notice law attacks free press and right to know

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A lawsuit filed by the Greensboro News & Record and other Guilford County newspapers against state legislation that disenfranchises them has widespread implications for the public’s right to access government information. The suit has merit and should prevail in court.

The News & Record, High Point Enterprise, Carolina Peacemaker and Jamestown News have sued the state of North Carolina and Guilford County to protest a local measure the state legislature adopted in October authorizing Guilford County to post public notices on its website rather than place them in newspapers’ print and internet editions, as has traditionally been required, the News & Record’s Taft Wireback reported on Tuesday. The legislation applies only in Guilford County, which the lawsuit claims is unfair, politically motivated and in violation of the state constitution.

“Plaintiffs, as members of the press, were specifically singled out for prior press coverage and editorials published by some or all of the plaintiffs involving certain acts by elected officials from Guilford County,” newspaper attorneys Amanda Martin and Robert Orr said in the complaint.

In other words, legislators didn’t like the newspapers’ criticism and retaliated by attacking a significant portion of their income, the suit alleges. If so, the bill is not only politically motivated, but it’s an attack on the free press and the public’s right to know what its government is up to.

And if it stands in Guilford, it could be duplicated in Forsyth County and other areas of the state.

The News & Record and the Winston-Salem Journal are both owned by BH Media Group.

The public notices generally include “notices of foreclosure, creditor status, unclaimed property, public hearings, agency audits and other official actions for which state laws require public notification before they can proceed,” the N&R reported.

Legislative representatives say they’re trying to save taxpayer money by publishing the information on a government website rather than pay for it to be published, as the law requires.

But even in this computer age, more people are likely to access the information via news media — including online resources — than by a government website. Allowing government control of the information also invites abuses, such as potential tampering with information that officials might like to suppress or spin, the N&R reported.

Newspapers do profit by printing the notices. Especially in smaller communities, the notices can represent a significant percentage of their revenue.

But newspapers are businesses and, like any other, have the right to make a fair profit. The notices also provide a public service by offering people information that’s relevant to making important decisions, some involving finances.

And with roughly 20 percent of North Carolinians still without internet access, newspapers can reach more people.

“A single newspaper can have an audience of many, whether it is in a public library or a workplace lunchroom,” the lawsuit states. “Printed newspapers are not subject to hacking, data loss or computer malfunction. Once a notice is published in a printed newspaper, it is fixed for all time in a concrete and permanent way.”

The bill passed by the legislature will do more harm than good. Even if its motivation is pure, it’s the wrong direction to go, for the public’s sake.