When the first Congress met in New York City in 1789, it required that all bills, orders, resolutions and votes be published in newspapers so citizens could know what was happening in their new republic.
A few years later, when Tennessee became a state and adopted its own constitution, it required the legislature to publish any amendment approved by the General Assembly.
Alerting citizens to the activities of government has been fundamental to the operation of our democracy since its beginnings, and newspapers always have played a central role, spreading word of public sales, regulations, bid lettings, meetings, seizures, ordinances, elections, and much more.
In recent years, though, some lawmakers have pushed to move public notices out of newspapers and into government websites. This is questionable public policy for many reasons.
First, the assumption that such a change will automatically save tax dollars is dubious. Maintaining websites is not cheap or easy and many local governments in Tennessee still have only a limited online presence, much less an active web administrator. Bringing digital operations up to speed in 95 counties and keeping them there would involve expenditures that the legislature can’t ignore.
Next, some lawmakers may be under the mistaken impression that newspaper no longer are an effective way to reach the public. Although it’s true that print circulation has declined in recent years, Tennessee newspapers still deliver about 4 million copies each week to more than 1.2 million households. Limiting public notices to digital platforms will cut off many Tennesseans, especially senior citizens who are not comfortable with the internet and rely on their printed newspapers.
Besides, by placing announcements in newspapers, the government gets widespread online distribution as well. Under a law that went into effect in 2014, newspapers that print public notices must also post them online at no extra charge. The Tennessee Press Association aggregates all of those online notices onto one, easy-to-use, central statewide public notice site.
Using newspapers to publish public notices also assures that due process of law is upheld. Permanent, physical records of important announcements can prevent costly legal disputes if the issue of notification is later questioned.
Public notices are especially critical to holding government accountable. They let citizens monitor the actions of officials and be alerted to opportunities to weigh in on issues. Having a neutral third party involved is essential. Otherwise, agencies may be tempted to downplay notices of controversy or announce lucrative opportunities only to chosen insiders.
It’s important to keep in mind, too, that newspapers are a “push” technology. They spread information into homes where it can be passively discovered even if it wasn’t being sought. Sticking notices somewhere on government websites changes that dynamic. Finding information then becomes a hunting expedition, making it more likely that average citizens will miss out.
Several years ago, one lawmaker became convinced of the importance of public notice by a constituent who learned that his son was in financial distress only by finding a foreclosure notice in the paper. The younger man had been too embarrassed to seek the help he needed, but his father was able to come to the rescue in time to save his son’s home, thanks to public notice.
Each year, the Tennessee Press Association tries to bring attention to this issue during Public Notice Week. This year, that’s Jan. 20-26.
Remember, public notice is the third leg of the stool upon which rests our participatory government. The other two are open meetings and access to public records.
If any of those legs gets wobbly, citizens will no longer have a stable seat at the table of democracy. So let’s keep public notice in newspapers strong.
Jack McElroy is executive editor of the News Sentinel