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Florida Legal Notice Law Breezing Through House, Senate Will Be the Decider

Picture of  legal notices copy: legal notices, not so easy to read

TALLAHASSEE, FL – For the third consecutive session, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, has introduced a bill seeking to repeal a state law that requires local governments and state agencies to publish legal ads and other notices in print newspapers.

This year’s version, House Bill 35, has already secured one committee endorsement after it was approved by the House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee in an 11-6 partisan vote on Feb. 3.

If adopted by the House Judiciary Committee, it could be ready for a floor vote early in the 60-day 2021 session that begins March 2 and for transfer to the Senate, where Fine’s 2019 and 2020 bills withered without hearings after adoption by the House.

When he filed HB 35 in December, Fine said the state’s public notice laws are obsolete and a “subsidy to a dying industry.”

He reiterated those statements before the House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee last week, noting with newspaper readership declining dramatically, few Floridians actually read them anymore on a regular basis.

Fine said it was hypocritical for the news industry to harp on lawmakers about kowtowing to special interests when, in fact, the print news industry is a special interest benefiting from largess accorded by the Legislature from taxpayers money that he believes is best spent on other ways to meet public notice requirements.

“The same publications who will write front page article after front page article after front page article bemoaning the influence of special interests in the Legislature parade up here arguing for their own unjustifiable special interest,” Fine said. “The arguments that have been used against the bill to some degree point out why the industry is dying: because many of them are so functionally dishonest.”

HB 35 would not ban local governments and state agencies from buying newspaper space, though it would allow for direct mail and other types of information dispersal.

Under the bill, governmental agencies must buy an ad once a year in a publication “delivered to all residents and property owners throughout the government’s jurisdiction” letting them know they can register to receive public notices by email or postal mail.

Online postings must be published on a “publicly accessible website,” defined as “a governmental agency’s official website or other private website designated by the governmental agency for the posting of legal notices and advertisements accessible via the internet.”

As with Fine’s 2019 Public Notice Reform Act and his 2020 HB 7, his 2021 proposal is drawing heated opposition from Democrats and from First Amendment advocates who argue it would allow government more discretion in where it publishes public notices, especially those it doesn’t want broadly publicized.

The most heated opposition, however, emanates from Florida newspaper publishers, especially those who rely on legal notice revenues to stay afloat in an evolving information environment.

During its hearing before the House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee, representatives from the Tallahassee Democrat and small local newspapers, such as the Wakulla News and the Gadsden County Times, argued Fine’s bill isn’t about saving taxpayers’ money but about punishing the media.

Lobbyist Ron Book, speaking on behalf of Gannett’s 22 Florida newspapers and the Florida Press Association, said the irony is HB 35 won’t significantly damage the big urban “liberal” dailies Republicans rail about, but would devastate the small-town newspapers in the rural communities they represent.

“You won’t put the Miami Herald out of business. You won’t put the Orlando Sentinel out of business. You won’t put the Tampa Bay Times out of business,” Book said. “But you’ll put a lot of the others out of business.”

This piece appeared in the The Center Square and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license. Images and layout added by the Observer.

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