Friday, January 4, 2013

Gene Policinski: What’s at stake in publishing public records such as gun permits

  Plenty of folks went a’ gunning verbally for the editors of the New York state newspaper that last month published the names and addresses of local pistol-permit holders.

  The nationwide flap over the special report has caused a deluge of negative e-mails, delivery of least one packet of suspicious powder and — in what many gleefully noted — led the newspaper to position armed security guards at its headquarters building.

  Of course, The Journal News, in Rockland County, N.Y., had a First Amendment right to post publicly the detailed public records. Likewise, readers and others around the nation have a right to criticize the decision, in the most severe terms.

  But the ranks of critics include some state legislators — and likely will include more — who would craft all manner of official reactions to the Dec. 23 interactive map containing permit holders’ locations and personal information for Rockland and Westchester counties.

  Not content with merely taking such records out of public circulation, as some states did some years ago, a Maryland lawmaker wants a law telling journalists what they can and cannot print, post or broadcast. Maryland State Delegate Pat McDonough said last week he would introduce legislation to “prohibit newspapers and other publications from printing personal or private information about firearm owners.”

  Criticizing unpopular news media while also proposing legislation that attracts wide popular support will be impossible to resist for opportunistic as well as concerned lawmakers. And certainly it’s within the duties of legislators to look out for the safety of constituents, if that’s what is at stake here.

  Are public records “private”? No, but in the pre-Internet era, much information that was “public” existed in practical obscurity. It was all in county courthouse records, but not all that accessible. Until recently, no one could have created an interactive map with detailed personal information as easily as did the New York newspaper.

  By using aggregate statistics, news outlets such as the Memphis Commercial Appeal have used public records to report that permits were being issued to felons, the mentally incompetent and others who were not supposed to get them.

  Other journalists have tracked how quickly guns purchased legally in one area have been used in crimes in another. Such information also can be used to refute or support claims of any link between high-crime areas and the presence of firearms, or the deterrence value of a concentration of homes with self-defense weapons.

  Government officials should be doing an effective, responsible job of issuing permits and evaluating such data. But a free press also must be there on behalf of us all, with access to the same information, to hold officials accountable for their decisions. The public — you and I — can in turn hold the news operation accountable for what it reports.

  Such is the underpinning of decades of hard-fought victories to open or keep open a range of records about public business compiled with public funds by public officials who might otherwise keep them behind closed file drawers or computer firewall.

  The gun flap is not really a new situation, even with the Web-era twist. For many, many years, car-accident photos were the staple of many a newspaper front or inside page. The color era ramped up the impact of such photos. Readers across the nation let their local editors know that’s not what they wanted to see on a daily basis, and such photos generally disappeared — but news reports about significant traffic issues and accidents continue to this day, sans the gore.

  No questions or legislation arose about the First Amendment right to publish the pictures. Journalists decided on the right things to print for their readers, weighing what readers needed to know and what readers wanted to know.

  Presumably, that’s a process under way in Rockland County, N.Y. And that’s the right approach under the First Amendment.

  About the author: Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.

  This article was published by the First Amendment Center.

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