Posted: Feb. 26, 2013 | Tags: open government
Shortly after the tragic massacre of school children in Newtown, Conn., in December, the Westchester, N.Y., Journal News got access to a list of all gun permit owners in Westchester and Rockland counties and made it available on its website.
The publication of the list, which was a public record, provoked an outcry from permit holders who said their privacy had been violated.
Within a few weeks, the New York legislature and governor agreed to a bill making the records off limits to the public for four months. The bill also includes a provision giving permit holders the power to “opt-out,” by having their names and addresses taken out of the database.
Around the nation this winter, similar legislation has been finding friendly reception among state lawmakers:
• Virginia passed a new law making the names of those who get concealed carry permits off limits. It hasn’t yet been signed by the governor, but it likely will be.
• Arkansas legislators passed a bill restricting access to the names of gun permit holders, and the lieutenant governor, in an extraordinary act, signed it because the governor (who opposed the bill) was out of town.
• A similar bill has been passed by one house of the New Jersey State Assembly.
• In Maine, a records request by the Bangor Daily News led to an emergency bill that makes “personal” information about gun permit holders off limits until at least April 30.
• Tennessee’s legislature, as well as others around the nation, also are considering bills that would make gun permit holders’ names private.
• Other states, including Florida, already had acted to put the information out of reach of the public at large.
It might not be surprising that state lawmakers, especially those from areas where gun ownership is high, see some political advantage in these bills.
But we’re a little more surprised to learn that a newspaper in Cherokee, N.C., has rescinded a request for the names of gun permit owners. And, in doing so, the newspaper publisher apologized to the county sheriff and the community for making the request in the first place. Here is the story as reported by JimRomensko.com.
Naturally, all this is upsetting to those of us who believe that the public should have access to nearly all the information that governments at all levels possess. However, publication of lists like these (a popular one with news organizations is the list of public employee salaries) can raise significant privacy issues.
One test might be whether the information truly is “newsworthy.” For example, if a list of concealed-carry permits revealed that they were being given to people who were not supposed to receive them under state law, then naming those names seems perfectly legitimate news. And if you don't have access to the whole list, it isn’t possible to perform that type of oversight or “watchdog” reporting. You might trust the government to not make mistakes like that, but experience in many areas shows that such trust is often misplaced.
One of the roles that journalists can play is to look for such mistakes and point them out so that the public interest is better served. Putting even sensitive information out of the public’s reach often ends up hurting the public at large.