The Freedom of the Press Foundation reports a disturbing trend at the county and municipal levels: governments pulling official notices from local papers in retaliation for unfavorable reporting.
In Delaware County, New York, the board of supervisors dropped local newspaper The Reporter as the official county paper for printing local laws and notices in 2022, citing increased prices for advertising. A year later, however, the board wrote a letter to The Reporter’s publishers to complain about its coverage, specifically stating the true reason for the county’s decision: displeasure over certain elements of the paper’s reporting. The New York Times picked up the story. Days later, the Delaware County Attorney issued a gag order on all county employees prohibiting them from speaking to The Reporter at all.
Now, the paper is suing, alleging First and Fourteenth Amendment violations. In addition to police raids of newsrooms and arrests of journalists by local governments, the defunding movement is gaining steam against already financially stressed local newspapers across the country.
In Putnam County, New York, the local government terminated The Putnam County News and Recorder’s contract to publish county legal notices following supposedly critical coverage of the newly elected county executive. As in Delaware County, it seemed a blatant attempt to use the power of the purse strings to manipulate local media.
Similarly, in Kansas, the attorney general issued an advisory opinion suggesting that local governments could exempt themselves from a state law requiring official notices to be published in a designated newspaper. Since then, the cities of Hillsboro and Westmoreland have done exactly that, creating heightened concerns about a lack of government transparency in the process.
In Ohio, the state passed a little noticed new law in its 6,000-page budget permitting cities and towns to publish notices on their official websites rather than in local papers. (A similar action also took place in Florida.) There are benign explanations for this move. But these new standards give local governments new ammunition to employ against newspapers in an effort to control the narrative.
It’s a storied tradition for municipalities to post public notices in newspapers (in fact, most cities and towns have laws requiring them to do so). The purpose is to keep residents and voters informed of official government actions – local meetings, land sales, zoning changes, and the like. And while failing to uphold this practice does not violate the Constitution, government retaliation against newspapers based on their reporting certainly does. Gagging county employees willing to speak on matters of public concern, moreover, violates both the newspapers’ First Amendment rights and those of the prospective speakers and whistle-blowers.
We applaud the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s efforts to support local papers and fight back against officials more concerned with consolidating power than protecting speech.