Law doesn’t say public notice is fulfilled via social media posting

Q: When I checked our sheriff’s Facebook page I saw a nice picture of a horse, but I was surprised to see accompanying the photo a Notice of Estray. Our newspaper usually publishes those as a paid public notice. Has the law been changed to allow publication on a social media platform, instead of in the newspaper?

A: First, let’s look at Texas Agriculture Code Section 142.009, titled “Impoundment of Estray,” starting with paragraph (b), which says: 
After impounding an estray, the sheriff or sheriff’s designee shall prepare a notice of estray stating at least:
(1) the name and address of the person who reported the estray to the sheriff;
(2) the location of the estray when found;
(3) the location of the estray until disposition; and
(4) a description of the animal, including its breed, if known, color, sex, age, size, markings of any kind, including ear markings and brands, and other identifying characteristics.
(c) The sheriff or sheriff’s designee shall file each notice of estray in the estray records in the office of the county clerk.
(d) If the owner of the estray is unknown, the sheriff or the sheriff’s designee shall make a diligent search for the identity of the owner of the estray, including a search in the county register of recorded brands, if the animal has an identifiable brand.  If the search does not reveal the owner, the sheriff shall post a notice of the impoundment of the estray on the public notice board of the courthouse and advertise the impoundment of the estray:
(1) in a newspaper of general circulation in the county at least twice during the 15 days after the date of impoundment; or
(2) on the county’s Internet website for at least 15 days after the date of impoundment. 
Next, let’s zero-in on “; or” in subparagraph (d)(1). This semicolon and tiny word, “; or,” allows a county’s Internet website to serve as an alternative to publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the county. 
So, a question emerges over whether a county employee’s Facebook page is the same thing as “the county’s Internet website.”
Because the law does not mention social media as an acceptable method for accomplishing public notice, it seems that a county-owned and operated official website is another thing entirely.
On Feb. 3, state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, filed House Bill 1541, legislation “relating to the posting of required notice by a political subdivision on Internet websites, or on a social media website.” The bill was referred to the House Government Transparency & Operation Committee,  where the Texas Press Association Legislative Advisory Committee testified in opposition. 

Q: Well, I asked the sheriff why he did the Facebook posting instead of a placing notice in the newspaper or posting it on the county website. He said his Facebook page is considered the official website for his office. 
So we went over the actual wording of Agriculture Code 142.009. The sheriff’s reaction was that he has no control over the county website, and he has no idea who is in charge of posting information on it.
I then asked him how he planned to reach people who are not on Facebook, and he said, “If we had the money, I guess we would put it in the newspapers.”

A: The county’s bookkeeping folks know or can find out, or can supply you with the information to find out what exact amount and percentage of the budget is or was expended on public notices in the newspaper. 
It’s going to be a surprisingly small amount, likely less than one tenth of 1 percent of the county budget, if it’s similar to what other counties are been spending for the same purpose. 
Whatever the total amount spent is claimed to be, scrutinize it. Here’s why. The total amount can be unintentionally (or intentionally) inflated by someone who adds what the county spent for advertisements about the junior livestock show and other community events, which are not public notices required by state law. 
The actual amount spent on public notices by the county and/or sheriff’s department on items that various state laws require to be placed in the form of a public notice in your newspaper is quite small, especially when compared to the county or departmental budget as a whole.  If your sheriff’s budget is too tight to place a notice of estray in the newspaper — the place people really go to read public notices — the county’s finances need extra attention.

Q: I am on deadline and I want to run a news story/obit with a photo of the deceased. The only photo my staff has been able to find is on a Facebook page. Can I publish the Facebook photo as part of the story?

A: U.S. copyright law says permission from whoever owns the image is required. And that can be hard to determine. Is it a studio shot?
You could try family members if they are locatable, but in respect to grieving family and friends, the funeral home may be your best bet for securing a usable photo.
The image on Facebook is someone’s intellectual property. To read more on this topic, click:
An Internet search engine will yield plenty of cautionary tales about the perils of re-using images without permission.

Q: This is about the “personals” category of classified advertising. The prospective advertiser is an older man looking for a much younger woman to share his country life with. I want to make sure we don’t agree to publish anything over the line, in terms of age discrimination. Is there anything out there that helps us stay in safe territory?

A: The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has guidelines for the wording of job ads. The federal Fair Housing Authority has guidelines for the wording of housing and apartment ads. Your newspaper’s own standards come into play in a situation like this. 
If the wording of this personal ad violates your editorial sense of decency, you can choose not to run it. 
There’s nothing wrong with suggesting alternative wording.