The Internet may have fundamentally changed the way many entities do business, but that doesn't mean it should be used as a foil by politicians and clever professional associations to alter the long-standing, printed format of mandatory public notices.
Legal notices are just that: They are required by law to be placed in newspapers of general circulation to inform citizens of many things in many categories. Among the most important of these are public meetings and public bids by governmental entities—for example, the scheduled or called meetings of Chattanooga City Council and the Hamilton County Commission and other governmental entities, and the bids they issue for public contracts.
Similar printed legal notices are also required as a means of notifying citizens of pending legal actions and court filings, a category which runs the gamut from home and property foreclosures to bankruptcies, from public auctions to notices to creditors of deaths and estate issues.
Concern over how legal notices are posted arises because Chattanooga and Hamilton County government have persuaded two local members of the county's legislative delegation, state Rep. Vince Dean and state Sen. Bo Watson, to introduce legislation that would let both governmental entities publish their mandatory legal notices on their websites. Other entities, including Erlanger hospital and the Chattanooga Electric Power Board, would gain similar authority for website posting under the proposed legislation.
Similar bills before the Legislature would allow members of the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee Bankers Association to post their legal notices on the Tennessee secretary of state's website.
While it is true that newspapers have a vested interest in these bills, we do not oppose the legislation simply to retain the revenue we earn for printing them. Our chief concern is the result of the proposed change: the damage to the public's right to know from the fragmentation and slipperiness of letting various websites become the list-source for public notices.
General circulation newspapers have long served as a convenient collection point, clearing house and public bulletin board for legal notices of all sorts. This single-source method has worked well for generations. We fear that allowing governmental entities and other required filers to control and scatter the listing of their legal notices would undermine our democratic mandate for open and transparent government. It would make these notices more obscure, harder to locate, less accessible and more subject to manipulation.
As it is now, newspapers best provide their communities with a central public bulletin board, which serves as the main venue and chief collection point for all local legal notices in a community. The loss of this critical centrality is no small matter. It would open the door to the broad use of website-based notices that may not be easily available or readily discoverable to all, or even most, members of the public.
A further concern is that the scattering of legal notices will result in many that cannot be readily verified, or that go unfound, or that may not be permanently posted and archived for legal reference, thus negating their public and legal value.
These problems are best avoided by keeping legal notices in newspapers with general circulation in their communities. These newspapers and their legal notices' sections are much closer and more familiar to the constituents and citizens of the affected communities, and they are much more conveniently accessed.
A 2010 survey of Tennesseans, for example, found that nearly a quarter of all the state's citizens do not own a computer. Among the elderly that number is even higher. Many citizens who use computers, moreover, are not adept at searches to find the various websites and listings of the governmental entities and organizations under which legal notices might be filed. We expect the counter to be that not every citizen subscribes to a newspaper. That's true, but people who want to see legal notices know precisely where to find them, and they are easily able to do that.
City and county governments are pushing their bill ostensibly to save money. That's not an adequate excuse. The cost is far outweighed by the public's ability to find, clip and file the legal notices that pertain to their interest. The Internet age hasn't changed that.