During the 2021 legislative session, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 35 related to legal notices. House Bill 35 specifically authorized municipalities1 to publish legal notices on a newspaper’s website in lieu of a paper-based publication. Included in the authorization for internet-only publication is municipal notices for second readings of ordinances, and of comprehensive plan and rezoning ordinances under Section 166.041. Additionally, those municipalities that decide to take advantage of internet-only publication may not be charged any higher rate for online publication than the amount authorized under Section 50.061, Florida Statutes, for print publication.
These new regulations take effect January 1, 2022. As such, this memorandum will outline the changes in the law relative to the requirements for municipalities seeking to publish its legal notices online. Please note that this memorandum is not a summary of all the changes made by House Bill 35 and that each city’s code will need to be reviewed and analyzed to determine if any code amendments are necessary to permit internet-only advertising.
In sum, effective January 1, 2022, municipalities may publish legal notices on a qualifying newspaper’s website so long as the municipality first holds a public hearing and makes certain requisite findings of fact by a majority vote of governing body, continues to publish a print edition disclaimer weekly, and also posts certain information on the municipality’s website.
Which Newspapers Qualify to Publish Online Legal Notices?
House Bill 35 expanded upon and modified the requirements a newspaper is required to meet to publish legal notices. While it is the newspaper that is responsible for meeting these requirements to continue to publish legal advertisements and notices, municipalities may only publish its legal notices online with newspapers which meet the new requirements. Therefore, in order to provide a comprehensive review of the new framework, a summary of those requirements are as follows.
Pursuant to Sections 50.011 and 50.031, Florida Statutes, as amended, a newspaper must:
1) At the time of publication, have been in existence for 2 years or be the direct successor of such a newspaper;2
2) Be printed and published periodically at least once per week;3
3) Contain at least 25 percent of its words in the English language;4
4) Be available to the public generally for the publication of official or other notices with no more than 75 percent of its content dedicated toward advertising and customarily containing information of a public character or of interest or value to the residents or owners of property in the county where published or the general public; and5
5) Continually publish in a prominent manner (1) the name, street address, phone number, website URL of the newspaper’s approved print auditor, (2) the newspaper’s most recent statement of ownership, and (3) a statement of the auditor certifying the veracity of the newspaper’s print distribution and the number of newspaper’s website’s monthly unique visitors or the newspaper’s periodicals permit, within the first five pages of the print edition and the bottom portion of the homepage of the newspaper’s website.6
Additionally, a newspaper must either (1) hold a periodicals permit as of March 1, 2021 and accept legal notices for publication as of that date or (2) meet a new standard which requires the newspaper to have an audience of at least 10 percent of the households in the county or municipality where the legal notice is being published or posted7 and also to be available to the public, for sale or otherwise, at no less than 10 publicly accessible outlets.8 Beginning January 1, 2024 all newspapers will be required to meet the new standard.9
The Florida Press Association is also now required to publish a report listing all newspapers that have placed notices on www.floridapublicnotices.com in the preceding quarter, identifying the criteria each newspaper satisfied, amongst other requirements.10 The Florida Press Association is required to maintain the reports for a minimum of the four preceding quarters available on the website.11
What Types of Notices can be Published Online?
In Section 50.0211, Florida Statutes, House Bill 35 created a definition of “governmental agency notice” which provides a list of the types of notices municipalities are authorized opt for internet-only publication. These include: (1) code enforcement notices published pursuant to Section 162.12; (2) notices proposing the enactment of municipal ordinances pursuant to Section 166.041; (3) advertisements of hearing notices, millage rates, and budgets pursuant to Section 200.065; and (4) forfeiture notices pursuant to Sections 849.38 and 932.704. A full list of the types of notices authorized to be published online can be found in Section 50.0211(1)(b), Florida Statutes.12
What are the Requirements for a Municipality to Exercise its Option for Internet-Only Publication of Governmental Agency Notices?
In order for a municipality to opt for internet-only publication of governmental agency notices, it must (1) hold a public hearing and make certain findings of fact by a majority vote of governing body, (2) publish a print edition disclaimer weekly, and (3) post certain information on the municipality’s website.13 The details of each of these requirements is addressed in turn below.
To opt for internet-only publication of governmental agency notices, the municipality must first make a specific determination of fact by a majority vote of the members of the governing body after a public hearing. The governing body must determine that (1) the internet publication of such notices is in the public interest and (2) that the residents within the jurisdiction of the municipality have sufficient access to the internet by broadband service, or through other means, such that internet-only publication of notices would not unreasonably restrict public access.14 The public hearing notice for this agenda item is required to be published in the print edition of a qualifying newspaper, as detailed above. The City Attorney’s Office is available to work with staff to ensure the appropriate study is performed and the relevant supporting data is gathered to present to the City Commission for its consideration.
If a municipality exercises its option to publish internet-only governmental agency notices, it must still provide notice at least once per week in the print edition of a qualifying newspaper stating (1) that legal notices pertaining to the municipality do not all appear in the print edition of the local newspaper and (2) that additional legal notices may be accessed on the newspaper’s website and that a full listing of any legal notices may be accessed on the statewide legal notice website located at www.floridapublicnotices.com.15
Finally, the municipality must post a link on its website homepage to a webpage that lists all of the newspapers on which it publishes legal notices.16
Please note, the Legislature specifically acknowledged that any other statute that requires the publication of an official legal notice in the print edition of a newspaper may not be construed to be superseded by the new internet-only publication requirements.17
What are the Requirements for the Internet-Only Notice?
Lastly, House Bill 35 provided certain requirements for the notices to be published online only themselves. First, the notice must be placed in the legal notices section of the newspaper’s website and at www.floridapublicnotices.com.18 Second, all of the requirements regarding the format and accessibility of legal notices provided in Subsections 50.0211(3) and (4) also apply to internet-only publications.19 Third and finally, the notice must be posted on the website of a newspaper of general circulation within the jurisdiction of the municipality.20 This final requirement is satisfied so long as the requirements of Section 50.011(1), discussed above, are met.
As always, if you have any questions regarding internet-only publication of legal notices please feel free to contact your City Attorney’s Office.
1 Although this memorandum focuses on municipalities, the Legislature created a definition for “[g]overnmental agency” which includes “a county, a municipality, a district school board, or any other unit of local government or political subdivision in this state” all of which may take advantage of internet-only advertising. §50.0211(1)(a), Fla. Stat. (2021).
2 §50.031, Fla. Stat. (2021).
3 §50.011(1), Fla. Stat. (2021).
7 The Legislature has created a formula by which it is calculated whether this standard is met. §50.011(1)(c)(1), Fla. Stat. (2021).
8 §50.011(1), Fla. Stat. (2021).
9 There is a separate requirement that can be met for newspapers publishing notices in “fiscally constrained count[ies]” as is defined in and provided for in the amendments from House Bill 35. §50.011(1)(c)(3), Fla. Stat. (2021).
10 §50.0211(4), Fla. Stat. (2021).
12 Although the Legislature created a list of specific types of governmental agency notices, the Legislature kept a catch-all applying the Section to all legal notices required to be published in accordance with Chapter 50 unless otherwise specified. §50.0211(2), Fla. Stat. (2021).
13 §50.0211(5), Fla. Stat. (2021).
14 §50.0211(5)(a), Fla. Stat. (2021).
15 §50.0211(5)(d), Fla. Stat. (2021).
17 §50.0211(7), Fla. Stat. (2021).
18 §50.0211(5)(a), Fla. Stat. (2021).