‘It’s free press rights,’ newspapers argue as they fight to keep legal notice requirements – News & Observer

State legislators are again sparring over whether public legal notices – such as foreclosure and government contract bidding announcements – must appear in newspapers or just on government websites.

Rep. Stephen Ross, a Burlington Republican, filed what he calls a compromise bill Wednesday to resolve the issue. He says his proposed legal notice requirements would “preserve the right to know for all North Carolinians.”

While a Republican-sponsored bill in the House and Senate would allow local governments and attorneys to instead post notices on government websites, Ross’ bill would keep the current requirement to publish notices on classified ad pages in local newspapers. The newspapers would then be required to post notices on their websites and on a statewide notices website run by the N.C. Press Association, and the newspapers would have to offer a discounted rate for notices published more than once.

“This bill will ensure that legal notices will be distributed far beyond the reach of any government website and can reach those without internet service,” Ross said. “This legislation is a true compromise modeled after a law that was passed in the Florida legislature in 2012.”

Ross’ bill has the backing of the N.C. Press Association, which is fighting the proposal to end newspaper publication requirements. That bill is sponsored by Republican Sen. Trudy Wade of Greensboro, with a House companion bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville.

It would allow towns, cities and counties to publish their legal notices on their own government websites, while also charging fees to attorneys and others who are required to publish legal notices. Those fees would be used to help fund teacher pay supplements. Supporters say that’s a more modern approach to public notices and would save local governments money on newspaper ads, although they could still publish notices there.

The N.C. League of Municipalities is supporting that legislation. “Cities and towns have long supported legislation allowing municipalities to publish required public notices electronically on their own websites, a move that will save taxpayers money and still keep the public informed,” the organization wrote in its recent newsletter.

Press Association attorney John Bussian says that the change could result in local leaders removing legal notices from newspapers if they object to the news coverage, reducing papers’ revenue. “It’s free press rights at the end of the day,” Bussian said.

He says legal notice advertising is particularly critical for small-town newspapers, where it accounts for up to 50 percent of revenue.

“It might cause them to close,” Bussian said of Wade and McGrady’s bills. “We would argue that with that revenue we provide an important public service.”

It’s unclear if either proposal to change legal notice requirements has enough support to pass this year. Similar bills have been filed in previous legislative sessions but didn’t pass.

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