Free Speech Should Not Mean “Mandated” Speech

Dec-15-2009

Under the guise of "Sunshine" and "Free Speech" Florida's newspapers are engaging in the worst form of hypocrisy.

The Florida Press Association is opposing a proposed change to the law that would remove the Florida state mandate that local governments (using taxpayer dollars) pay for advertising space in printed newspapers.

If you are reading this, chances are you are reading it online. The fact is that no newspaper would dare publish such an opinion piece. It is also a fact that newspapers all across America recognize the power and the utility of online resources. They also recognize that more and more people get their news from online sources. They know this and as a result they are changing the very foundation of who they are and how they conduct their business. Yes, they themselves are rapidly changing and moving to provide more and more online news and news-related services.

But they don't want local government to change and that is the hypocrisy.

For years, it has been state law that local governments are required to buy ads in local (print) newspapers to notify the public of public meetings and other such matters. For the record, public notification and open public meetings is a very good thing, but let's be honest, does anyone really read the public notifications stuffed in the back of the local (print edition) paper? Or are those interested at such a high level of the goings on in government equally likely to find such notices on line? This is not a case against public notice, it is a case in support of providing local government the same flexibility that newspapers themselves have and allowing them the same options that everyone else is exploring.

So if newspapers are changing and moving to an online format, why shouldn't local governments be allowed the same opportunity?

Each year, cities and counties all across Florida are forced to spend (dare I say "waste"?) millions - yes millions - of taxpayer dollars paying for legal notices in printed newspapers. Notices that almost nobody reads.

These nearly worthless state-mandated legal notices are not just a vestigial tradition dating back to the turn of the century, they amount to a government subsidy to help keep failing newspapers afloat. There is no real good reason for cities, counties, school boards and other local bodies to use tax dollars to buy advertisements that serve no legitimate public purpose.

State lawmakers need to loosen the reins and give local governments the same flexibility to notice public meetings in a way that a) doesn't cost taxpayers millions of dollars and b) actually reaches those citizens who care.

So what options could local governments use?

For starters, email notification, online ads in papers, posting on the governments' websites, postings at the government buildings, notifications on local government TV channels...heck, hot air balloons if it got people's attention.

The fact is that the state mandates that school boards, sheriff offices, county and city commissions to name a few, MUST, as a matter of law, run and pay for advertising in print in local newspapers. It is ironic that some of those very newspapers are strong supporters of free speech and the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution and are offering editorial positions in opposition to changing this bad law.

Without a doubt, the first amendment to our country's Constitution stands as one of our most important freedoms, but there is a world of difference between freedom of speech and speech that is mandated.