Don’t change this law

Published 9:01 pm Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Local newspapers serve many purposes, the primary one being to keep residents informed on matters that affect them.

Virginia has long required local governments to publish certain information, known as legal notices, in their local paper to ensure the localities are doing everything they can to operate transparently.

Yet as we speak, a handful of state lawmakers are trying to push legislation through the General Assembly that would essentially end the requirement that local governments publish legal notices in the newspaper. In its place would be a new requirement that they only need be published on the localities’ websites.

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In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that local governments pay newspapers to publish these notices. It would also be a little disingenuous for us to glaze over the fact that the loss of revenue generated by these legal notices would have a negative financial impact on most newspapers.

But the impact on citizens would be even more significant, and for that reason alone the legislation should be defeated.

There are two aspects of this attempt to keep citizens in the dark that trouble us, and they should trouble you, too. First, while putting vital information on a local government website makes sense, not everyone has access to the Internet, especially in the rural parts of a community like ours. Many folks who want Internet access are forced to choose between painfully slow dial-up connections or expensive satellite providers.

Lower-income families are often forced to opt out of faster satellite service, and dial-up service is so frustrating that few use it anymore. Until affordable high-speed Internet access levels the playing field for all residents of a community, the realities of such disparities in service must be taken into account.

We also know from our experience in publishing a high-volume website that many elderly residents have simply not made the transition to gathering information online. So if the objective of requiring the publication of legal notices is to keep as many people informed as possible, publishing legal notices on government websites shouldn’t replace the requirement to publish them in the newspaper; it should be required in addition to publishing them there.

The second aspect of this issue we find troubling is this: If the government is able to totally control the means by which information about its activities are disclosed to the public, how long will it be before it totally controls the content of the information that is disclosed to the public?

The city of Suffolk supported similar, unsuccessful legislation last year and could do so again this year. Passing this legislation would set a dangerous precedent, and three of our local legislators, Del. Rick Morris, R-Carrollton, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Harry Blevins, R-Chesapeake, sit on committees that will hear these bills. We encourage them to vote no.