Another View: History of public notices dates to country founding

By Mark Maassen
Missouri Press Association

On Dec. 6, the first provisions of medical marijuana in Missouri will be implemented, seemingly a departure from Missouri’s conservative political climate until you consider what else was decided in the Nov. 6 general election.

Missourians also elected to pass lobbying and campaign finance reform and an increase to the minimum wage.

Equally notable were the losses from that day, including a fuel tax increase that would have supported road and bridge improvements along with road law enforcement efforts. Also losing were two other different medical marijuana ballot questions.

Mark Maassen

Voters were clearly informed of their choices heading into the November election and made their decisions on the ballot accordingly. The state’s newspapers had a huge role in this thanks to their regular editorial coverage of the issues and the legal requirements for ballot questions to be printed in local newspapers.

Armed with knowledge, voters took to the polls in record numbers for a midterm election. The Missouri secretary of state’s office spent $5.7 million advertising ballot issues with Missouri newspapers, a bargain considering those dollars helped ensure voters in every community of the state had access to ballot language before heading to the polls.

The importance of legal notices goes back to the earliest days of the state’s and country’s histories. The Public Notices Resource Center reminds us that in 1789, the Acts of the 1st Session of the U.S. Congress required all bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes be published in at least three publicly available newspapers.

Missouri courts have long recognized the importance of legal notices, such as an 1885 reference to “public notices” regarding a corporate matter in a case decided that year. An 1892 case determined that the owner of hogs running loose on city streets would be given notice “by one week’s publication in some newspaper of general circulation in the city.” In 1897, a court pointed out that the general public is entitled to notice about a certain matter in a case pending before it.

“It is the purpose of legal notices and advertisements to give notice of legal and public events and proceedings,” a judge confirmed in a 1980 case. Speaking specifically about Section 493.050, R.S.Mo., the statute that defines qualifications to be a legal-notice paper, the judge noted, “We think it may be reasonably deduced that the primary and basic purpose of the act is to require publication in a ‘going’ regularly published and well-established newspaper. This, upon the theory that, by reason of long establishment of the newspaper in which it is published, the notice will more likely come to the attention of a greater number of citizens in the county.”

“The goal of the statute is to give notice to the widest audience possible. In order to ensure that each newspaper that publishes these notices can reach the entire audience, the statute mandates the duration and circulation requirements,” another judge in a 2000 decision said.

Public notices provide transparency and accessibility to citizens who want to be informed, while offering the public opportunities to influence governing bodies and be an active participant in a democratic society.

Missouri’s November 2018 general election proves the state’s newspapers are exceptionally suited to fulfilling this role.

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