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Legislators loosen rules on public notices

A March 17, 2022, edition of the Jacksonville Daily Record's public notices paper.
Claire Heddles
The Jacksonville Daily Record relies on legal notices from government agencies for almost a fifth of its income.

A bill on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk would allow government agencies to publish legal notices on their own websites instead of paying independent newspapers to publish them.

Legislators passed the bill with little attention even though it backtracked on changes approved last year and drew criticism as both a limit on public information and a slap at the media.

Legal notices include information about public hearings, zoning changes and other governmental activities.

Some local papers rely on these required notices as a portion of their income. For the Jacksonville Daily Record, about 17% of its revenue comes from governments paying them to publish legal notices.

Last year, lawmakers also tried to drop local newspapers from the equation, but the Florida Press Association successfully advocated for expanding the scope of eligible papers instead — including weekly papers instead of just daily papers.

Less than three months after that law went into effect, lawmakers undid the agreement altogether. Under the new bill, local governments would be able post legal notices on their own websites alone.

The Jacksonville Daily Record has been publishing public notices for more than a century in Northeast Florida.

The paper’s publisher, Angie Campbell, said the notices are about government transparency, not just income for the paper.

"For the public to not know where to go to find public notices; they're not going to want to search every publicly accessible website in the county to find public notice," Campbell said.

She said she doesn’t expect local governments to take up the new option of sidestepping local papers. 

"We fully expect to remain the designated paper of record and/or publicly accessible website of Public Notice here in Duval County given our expertise in the law and process," Campbell wrote in an email.

The city of Jacksonville did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Lawmakers were split on the bill during the legislative session, largely along party lines. Republicans said public notices subsidize local papers with taxpayer money.

"This bill moves us towards having a free press that literally is free of government influence, government advertisements," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay.

Duval County Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, also cosponsored the bill.

Democrats who were opposed to the bill during the legislative session said the change could limit public access to information and amounts to retaliation against the media.

"Legal notices in newspapers are how people know about the action of government," Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said. "This is just a further effort to wage this assault on our state's newspapers that are often the only institutions left that are holding government accountable."

According to an amendment to the bill, some legal notices including the sale of foreclosed properties, death records, divorce filings and termination of parental rights would still need to be published in a local newspaper.

DeSantis has not acted on the bill.

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.