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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Friend of press is friend of public

It would have been easy for state Rep. Marilyn Avila to go along.


A Republican member of the House from Raleigh, Avila could have bent to the leadership's command and voted yes on bills that would have dropped the requirement that local government place notices in newspapers to tell the public about rezonings, road closings, tax rates and other public business.
Instead, Avila stood on the House floor and made the case, powerfully and repeatedly, that making public notices less visible makes government less transparent and less accountable.
For her courage and support of government in the sunshine, the North Carolina Press Association last week honored Avila with its William C. Lassiter First Amendment Award, named for a former NCPA general counsel who spent his life fighting for open meetings and open records.
The NCPA does not give the award every year, because unfortunately it's not always possible to find someone outside our industry who fights hard for newspaper access and a more open government.
Avila "fought those who felt saving money on running notices was more important than keeping the public in the know," NCPA president Les High said at the association's annual awards ceremony last week.
Avila's own words on the House floor last June captured best what was at stake.
"We're exempting ourselves from laws that we ask the private sector to obey," she said. "When we pass laws and taxes and regulations and we hear the private sector yell, 'It's too expensive.' Our response is, 'That's your cost of doing business.' Well, members, our cost of doing business in public notifications to our citizens is a cost that we should incur."
There was an elephant in the room, pardon the expression, that Avila dared to call out.
"The stated goal here tonight is to save money," she said. "That may be part of it. However, there does seem to be an ulterior motive driven by the natural tension that exists between government and the press as has been reflected lately on some recent exchanges here in the General Assembly. To legislate anything here based on pettiness or paranoia, seeking revenge, belittles the positions that we hold.''
She not so subtly referred to the desire among certain high-ranking Republicans to punish newspapers economically for editorials that skewer the powerful Republican majority or for political coverage that the leadership just doesn't like. Such heavy-handed use of government power to punish protected speech brings to mind a certain IRS investigation that seemed to tilt against Tea Party organizations that oppose the current administration in Washington. That was wrong. Retaliatory legislation against newspapers is wrong, too.
Newspapers are the messengers, and yes we're the private businesses that stand to lose money if the Legislature drops public notices. Avila got it right, though, when she said the issue is more about people than the press. A relatively small savings for state agencies, counties and towns would cost the public infinitely more in a less open and less accountable government.