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OPINION: Warren’s bill will hide public notices, hurt local newspapers

A version of this editorial first appear in The Salisbury Post ( https://salisburypost.com/2021/01/31/editorial-warrens-bill-will-hide-public-notices-hurt-local-newspapers/ )

Rep. Harry Warren just doesn’t get it.

When he personally resumed Republican legislators’ crusade against local newspapers and the public’s right to know last week, Warren attempted to skirt a gubernatorial veto by cramming as many counties as he could into the definition of a local bill, proposed that citizens go searching for public notices instead of receiving them in a centralized place, gave local governments a no-brainer financial choice and ignored the negative effects his proposal would have on business. That it’s one of the first bills he introduced this legislative session proves his priorities.

Warren’s bill gives counties the ability to pass an ordinance and choose whether to put public notices in newspapers or on their websites. Instead, the notices would go on a county’s website for free or a fee. The compromise, apparently, is that he’s not forcing governments to remove notices from newspapers, as bills have in the past.

Warren knows a statewide bill wouldn’t make it into law. Even if it passed by both bodies of the legislature in party-line votes, Gov. Roy Cooper would have his veto pen ready and a statement something like the one he authored in response to a similar 2017 bill.

“Legislation that enacts retribution on the media threatens a free and open press, which is fundamental to our democracy,” Cooper wrote in a veto message.

Even if it fits the official definition, how “local” is a bill that includes 14 counties that stretch from the mountains to the coast and affects roughly 1.5 million North Carolinians?

House Bill 35 includes Cabarrus, Catawba, Currituck, Davidson, Forsyth, Haywood, Jackson, Montgomery, Richmond, Rockingham, Rowan, Rutherford, Stanly and Swain counties. It includes the 12th-smallest county (Swain) the fourth-largest (Forsyth) and lots in between. It will create a patchwork approach to public and legal notices.

To be clear, the most significant problem with Warren’s bill is that it will make it harder for the public to find out what’s going on in their community.

Never mind if you don’t have internet access at home or high-speed broadband isn’t available in your area. If Warren has his way, you may need to find a way to access a yet-to-be created section of the county’s website to find out about the Dollar General moving next door.

Newspapers are charged with carrying out a public service by publishing government notices, are paid for that service and remain the best way to reach a large percentage of the public.

Can Warren prove that an obscure section of the county’s website will even reach a couple thousand eyeballs a year?

Whether or not readers look at public notices online or in a printed newspaper, each edition reaches thousands of homes every day — each with the opportunity to read what’s going on in their community. Notices are available online, too, and via a statewide website maintained by the N.C. Press Association.

Government cannot only make public notices available on a website for people who are interested.

To be fair, Warren’s bill may not lead to changes in every county covered in his bill, but there’s no realistic choice when one option puts notices on a county website for free or a low cost.

The choice is made easier when local governments have a standoffish relationship with their local newspaper.

Warren’s bill, which will do nothing to expand the audience for public notices, will be a significant revenue loss for some newspapers in the state, potentially forcing some to close.

How many newspapers are locally owned anyway, Warren asked, forgetting the people employed by newspapers live in their communities. Many are his constituents. Whether the owner of the newspaper lives in town has no bearing on the public’s right to know.

Warren and his colleagues will be enticed to stick it to “the liberal media” without realizing newspapers in the counties he’s targeting employ people with diverse viewpoints, including conservative ones.

Communities are already suffering from deep divisions about basic facts. Without major changes and an honest embrace of opposing viewpoints, Warren is proposing a bad bill that will further tear at the community fabric in 14 counties.

Community-minded Republicans, Gov. Roy Cooper and Democrats must speak out against this blatant attack on North Carolinians and their local news. This is not a local bill. It’s a disguised attempt to start the state down a slippery slope.