OPINION: House proposal would circumvent free press

The proposed changes to HB 35 would hinder Floridians from receiving unbiased reporting of legal notices. FLICKR/STEVEN MARTIN

Signed into law Jan. 1, HB 35 changed the way legal notices are published in Florida. Instead of requiring them to only be published in paid newspapers, the bill allowed for legal notices to be published in free publications and on newspaper websites.

Now, the Florida House Judiciary Committee is proposing that local governments be allowed to publish legal notices themselves, instead of requiring a third-party publisher.

This proposal would hinder the public’s ability to access unbiased information and serve as a huge financial hit to free press in Florida if enacted. The House should reject this proposal, leaving HB 35 as-is.

HB 35 was the result of negotiations between Florida lawmakers and the newspaper industry. It maintains that notifications of local tax increases, hazardous waste disposal notices and reminders about upcoming public meetings are required to be published by a third-party.

The legal notices cost at most 70 cents per square inch of ad space when they were published in paid newspapers prior to HB 35, according to The Tampa Bay Times.

The Times Publishing Company, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, could lose a sum running up to seven figures in 2022 as a result of HB 35, said Joe DeLuca, the Tampa Bay Times’ executive vice president and general manager. 

Still, newspapers make ad revenue from publishing legal notices on their websites. This new proposal would “delete the option for publication on a newspaper’s website.” Thus, if a local government chose not to pay for print publication, the local press would lose that revenue.

The total revenue for the newspaper industry in 2020 was approximately $20 billion, with it decreasing by about 7% every year, leaving newspapers at about 60% of what they were making a decade ago, according to Pew Research Center

This revenue decrease has resulted in about 100 newspapers closing their doors each year since 2004, leaving third-party press less accessible than ever.

Free press is crucial to our democracy, and unbiased coverage of these notices should be mandatory.

This is exactly why these legal notices should be published by third-parties that are not affiliated with the government. If local governments only publish through their own public websites, they are not motivated to bring awareness to legal notices, particularly those the public may be opposed to.

At the Feb. 1 meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Erin Grall of Vero Beach said the measure aimed to save local taxpayer money, allowing any resident to request legal notices by mail or email. 

A staff bill analysis said it was unclear whether the measure would save local government’s money because of the potential new cost of mailing out legal notices. 

HB 35 should be left untouched. Governments cannot be trusted to report on their own doings in good faith. Attempts to circumvent the free press should not be tolerated in our democracy.