Restricting access to public notices poses a threat to the public

Rick Morain, former editor-publisher
Jefferson Bee and Herald newspapers

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Iowans want to know what their local governments—county supervisors, city councils, school boards—are up to. They always have. The very first newspapers in many of the state’s counties regularly published local public notices, paid for by local governments. It’s an American tradition that goes back to the time of Benjamin Franklin and before.

Most newspapers also carry their own stories about local government. It’s standard journalist practice to do so. But it’s not required. Local governments in Iowa, on the other hand, must report to the public what they do in their meetings, and they must do that in newspapers. It’s the law, and the Iowa Legislature has maintained that requirement for well over a century.

Public opinion surveys demonstrate that people approve of requiring publication of local government proceedings in newspapers. The latest study finds 65 percent of Iowans believe state and local government should be required to publish public notices in newspapers, and 83 percent of Iowans read their local newspaper. 

Local newspapers rank ahead of government-sponsored websites when it comes to trustworthiness, according to surveys: 84 percent for the local papers, 67 percent for the websites. One reason is doubtless that newspapers by nature provide a permanent record. No one has ever hacked a published newspaper, unlike Internet sites where content can disappear or suddenly be altered.

For people who prefer to find their official local government notices online, those that are published in Iowa newspapers are also posted at at no charge to local governments. But that preference ranks far behind the printed page. Most people read public notices as they leaf through their local paper, not because they intentionally look for them on a website.

Iowans’ access to government is protected three ways: open meetings, public records, and public notices. Restrictions of access to any one of the three pose a threat to the power of the people. Iowans historically protect their right to know what their governments do, and public notices in newspapers remain a crucial component of that knowledge.

In that regard Iowans agree with Thomas Jefferson’s opinion nearly 250 years ago: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Rick Morain is a former editor-publisher of the Jefferson Bee and Herald newspapers.