Is a submission a free public notice or paid ad? Publishers, editors decide


The following questions were submitted by the Liberty Herald, The Herald-Press (Huntington), The Indianapolis Recorder:  

Free public notice or paid ad?: Publishers, editors decide 

Q: I’ve been receiving a lot of public meeting notices that people are demanding we post in our community calendar, which is a running list of charitable events (not typically public meetings). I know a little bit about open door laws and public meeting requirements, but I was wondering if you could help me out with this.  

I know our paper is supposed to be notified before a public meeting, but when it comes to a public entity’s requirement to post a notice in prominent areas (like our newspaper or city hall) does that need to be an advertisement? I’ve had people get mad at me for not posting their township/city/county meeting times (in very short notice) because they say I am required to post them in our newspaper (for free). 

I get confused because I feel like I’m under no legal obligation to post these meeting notices (although I often do because I want people to be involved with local government), but I just want to make sure that I’m correct. The City of Huntington does this often, where they tell the Clerk-Treasurer to post the notice at the City Building and deliver one to the Herald-Press before XX/XX date at XX:XX time. That sounds more like a legal ad to me and not a public notice.  

A: There are two types of notices when it comes to local/state government units. There’s the public notice advertisement, where the legislature has said this information is so important that the government unit shall pay for publication of that notice. The rate your newspaper can charge is limited by the legislature, but the government unit does pay you to publish. 

The other type of notice of meeting falls under the Open Door Law. The government unit is required to give media outlets (that requested such notice before Jan. 1) notice of public meetings and executive sessions at least 48 hours prior the meeting (weekends and holidays don’t count toward the 48 hours). See I.C. 5-14-1.5-5. The unit must also post a copy of the notice either at its office or where the meeting will be held. 

There is no obligation for the newspaper to publish the notices provided under the Open Door Law. The notice is the opportunity for the media, as the eyes and ears of the public, to plan on attending the meeting if they want. 

While there is no obligation, many newspapers will publish a list of upcoming meetings as news content and service to their readers. It’s similar to newspapers that run a list of events submitted by non-profits and/or service organizations or some newspapers that will publish service times of local churches. In all three cases, there is no obligation, but a newspaper may decide to allocate a portion of its news hole for that purpose. Some newspapers have gone away from free listings of events or church services. I’ve seen ads built as a church directory with either the churches buying the space or a sponsor of the ad providing the funds for directory. 

While you probably won’t get the government units to pay for the government meetings listing, you might get a law firm or other business to sponsor the list. 

So it comes down to a decision by the publisher and/or editor as to the policy. Should publication be done free as a service to readers and encouragement for them to participate in the government process? Should publication be done only as a sidebar to a preview of an upcoming meeting story. Or should a meetings list publication be sold as another advertising product to a sponsor(s). 

No conflict of interest with councilman’s vote if wife works for county

Q: A citizen in Union County asked if it is a conflict of interest for a county council member to vote on the county budget, which includes salaries, if the county councilman’s wife works for the county. 

A: The relevant statute appears to be I.C. 35-44-1-3. In this situation, a conflict of interest occurs if the county council member “has a pecuniary interest in or derives a profit from a contract or purchase” connected with an action by the county council.   

There is an exception if the public servant’s dependent is receiving taxpayer dollars as compensation through salary or an employment contract for services provided as a public servant. This exception would eliminate the conflict of interest issue for the councilman. 

Keep in mind, a public official can vote on a contract that would personally benefit him/her if he/she properly files a disclosure form with the governing body for approval prior to the vote on the contract and that disclosure is then filed with the state and county after the vote on the contract.

Be consistent with policies on running op-eds from candidates

Q: A school board candidate sent an unsolicited op-ed piece requesting publication in this week’s edition. He does disclose he is running for school board. Are there any ethical concerns with regard to running his piece? I don’t want the newspaper being accused of giving one candidate more time or showing favoritism. 

A: You control what letters or op/ed pieces you decide to publish. There’s nothing wrong with running an op/ed from a candidate wanting to reach out to voters/constituents and no need to punish the one candidate who showed the initiative to write the piece and reach out to the newspaper. 

I usually advise newspapers to set a deadline ahead of election day for political ads or letters that contain attacks on opponents to be published and then give a later deadline as an opportunity for attacked candidates to respond (but not allowing new attacks in the rebuttal). The main thing is to be consistent. Create a policy and file it away so you’ve got it in place for the next election/primary. 


Send your questions to Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel,