We’re glad that the Hillsboro Free Press, which causes a stink about the matter every few months, finally has admitted to local officials that it cannot legally publish official notices. We assume the Free Press will now be giving a refund to the Burns fire protection district, whose public notice it fraudulently published last summer, and will apologize to other local officials for the consternation it caused a few years ago by creating — then quickly abandoning — a sham publication it contended was qualified to publish official notices.
The latest Free Press ploy involving public notices is that it wants to put them on the Internet. It says it wants to do it for free, but like everything else the Free Press folks do, at some point they undoubtedly will come back with their hands out, wanting to charge. Meanwhile, local government is being asked to assume all of the liability for legal challenges that might arise if there’s some difference between a notice the Free Press unofficially publishes and the actual, legal version of the notice published officially in a qualified newspaper.
What the Free Press really is up to is that it is trying to reopen a long-settled debate over whether official notices can be published only on the Internet, to which huge portions of the public don’t have access. A proposal to do just that died for lack of a second when an 11-member legislative committee considered it last spring. What the Free Press couldn’t get through the front door it’s now trying to bring in through the back door.
Legislators who refused to go along with the scheme knew there were grave dangers in allowing any old website — or any old publication distributed under federal “junk mail” regulations, as the Free Press is — to be the source for official notices of government activity. Opening the door to the Free Press publishing official notices would open the door to those businesses, too. People who pay the bills at the Free Press continually bemoan how their paper doesn’t qualify as a periodical publication under federal law — and thus cannot publish public notices or be a full member of Kansas Press Association, as we are. Maybe it is unfair, but it would be worse to rewrite the law the way the Free Press wants so that WalMart circulars and out-of-town Internet providers would qualify along with real hometown newspapers.
Truth be known, all public notices published in our newspapers already are published on the Internet. Several years ago, Kansas Press Association set up a special site to do just that — complete with ample safeguards to ensure that exactly the same notice is published there as is published officially in our papers. We’ve even added a special, free section of our own websites to republish public notices as part of our classified ads each week. You probably didn’t know about either of them, however. That’s the way it is with content people aren’t specifically looking for on the Internet. It’s there somewhere. You just aren’t quite sure where. And you never run across it in your weekly routine the way you do content put in newspapers you pay to read.
The Free Press is asking public officials to take potentially huge risks solely so that it can, sometime in the future, attempt to reopen an already settled argument. It’s yet another attempt to seem to do something for the community when in reality the Free Press’ goal is to employ unfair, predatory practices against legitimate hometown businesses while leaving local government to hold the bag.