Legislation before the Rhode Island General Assembly would take a swipe at both newspapers and transparency in government — two things that are intrinsically linked. House Bill 6375 and Senate Bill 916 seek to override any state laws that require municipal governments to post notices in print newspapers.
An informal review by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed nearly 200 Rhode Island statutes currently requiring published legal notices. Thus, in nearly 200 instances, state lawmakers deemed the information so important that they required government agencies to actively distribute printed notice to Rhode Island’s citizens, and this practice has continued for many decades.
Now legislation would wipe out the entire practice and override nearly 200 state statutes. Replacing the thousands of notices currently posted in the state’s newspapers would be a digital clearinghouse on the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s website.
The argument in favor of this shift is simple enough: Why pay to distribute something in print when you can do it for free online? The newspaper industry is painfully familiar with this logic, as it’s been used repeatedly to hammer the business model and either diminish or shut down print publishers everywhere.
Yet despite ugly perceptions, Rhode Island newspapers are alive and well. Collectively, they are mailed, dropped or brought home to more than 265,000 households — exceptional reach in a state of a million people.
Aside from dealing another setback to an industry that, like so many others, absorbed major losses during the pandemic, this legislation also dims the light shining on government and its activities. These legal notices run the gamut, bringing the public critical information about agendas, budgets, tax rates, bid notices, board vacancies, tax sales, public hearings, liquor license applications, zoning amendments and so much more.
Despite the appeal of dumping all this information into a searchable database maintained by the state, there is a significant difference between posting something where someone might find it, and actually delivering it to their home. That’s what newspapers do. They take critical information about a community, and they bring it home to some of its most invested and engaged citizens.
If the legal notices all went away, public information might be easy to find, but less likely to be found. Making something “public” and seeing it published are two very different things.