Guest editorial by Beth Grace
and Jessica Kennedy
N.C. Press Association
N.C. Rep. Marilyn Avila has been chosen to receive the prestigious North Carolina Press Association’s (NCPA) Lassiter Award to honor her strong and courageous battle to keep government open to the people.
This award was created and named in honor of the late William C. Lassiter, a former general counsel of the NCPA, who spent his life fighting to keep government access open.
The award carries a very simple mission: to honor a non-journalist who has furthered First Amendment freedoms and/or stood strong in defense of open government. It is one of the highest honors the NCPA gives, and is not awarded every year.
Avila was nominated by Todd Allen, owner and publisher of The Wake Weekly, and John Bussian, NCPA First Amendment counsel. She was the clear choice among the judges.
Avila’s work in the North Carolina House of Representatives in 2013 alone makes her richly deserving of the award. On no less than three occasions she rallied support against strong political headwinds within her own Republican House caucus to amend anti-newspaper public notice legislation by replacing the bad bills with the NCPA-backed Florida-Tennessee statewide compromise legislation.
Behind her strong floor speeches, each bill was amended on excep-tionally strong floor votes of 69, 65 and 62 House members — Republican and Democrat — in favor of the NCPA’s bill. The last vote came after the Speaker of the House took a seat on the floor and vehemently denounced the press association’s position on the amendment.
Avila’s floor speeches imploring House members to protect the public’s right to know through her amendment and to protect free press rights (by staving off local government’s “option” to revoke public notice advertising following unfavorable editorializing or coverage by the press) are now legendary.
At session’s end, she had taken substantial political risks to carry the amendments on the House floor, and she prevailed.
Avila will receive a plaque and be honored at the annual NCPA awards reception, Feb. 27, at the Hill Alumni Center in Chapel Hill.
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In defense of public notices
“We’re exempting ourselves from laws that we ask the private sector to obey.
“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.
“We’re setting a precedent that is not good, in policy, as far as keeping in touch with our citizens. We want DENR to exempt itself from notification.
“What’s next, transportation? Education? Commerce?
“Are our citizens going to have to bookmark every website for every department in every division in government and check it every day to figure out what we’re up to down here?
“This illustrates more clearly than any other argument, the direction for this legislation is to keep the current requirements, with cost adjustments, and expand it to reach out to those that want electronic notification, not force all citizens to a limited means of communication that they might not have access to or ability to use.
“How many of you have large rural areas where that access is not available? How many of you have sections in your urban areas where that’s not affordable and they do not have access? ...
“It’s no secret we’re in town and the doors are open for us to come in and speak, yet we are trying to introduce limitation on the notices for public hearings that will impact people’s lives.
“They won’t know the meetings are taking place. They won’t be able to walk through the doors and make their views known. I don’t think that’s what we want to do.
“The stated goal here tonight is to save money. 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, paranoia or seeking revenge, belittles the positions that we hold.
“As the ultimate source of all govern-ment funding, whether it’s federal, state or local, through their taxes or through their fees, our citizens are entitled to — and should demand — the fundamental obligation of openness and honesty from the people they elect.”
—Marilyn Avila, excerpt of speech on floor of House of Representatives