New gun laws restrict press access

In all this debate over the Second Amendment, they may be compromising the First

On Tuesday, New York state governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a gun control bill that includes provisions to keep gun permit holders — their identities, until now a matter of public record — confidential. This comes following the passionate response to the Journal News’s publication of an interactive map of pistol permit holders in New York’s Rockland and Westchester counties.

Tuesday also saw an official reaction to the map on a more local level: The Rockland County legislature passed two resolutions, urging the state to keep gun owner information confidential and demanding that the Journal News remove the map (it should be noted that Rockland County cannot force the Journal News to do so, just suggest).

Instead of leaving it to editors to decide if they should publish those public records and how best to do so, state and local governments want to ensure that they won’t have access to those records in the first place. In all this debate over the Second Amendment, they may be compromising the First.

“There are always people who see some disadvantage in having information about their lives and their addresses shared with the public,” says Ken Paulson, president and CEO of the First Amendment Center, and a former editor of the Journal News. “The core policy question is whether that overrides the transparency that is part and parcel of good government.”

At least local one official believes it does. A third county in the Journal News’s coverage area, Putnam, was not mapped. “Putnam County officials could not immediately provide any data. The map will be updated when that data is released,” the paper wrote at the time.

It may be waiting a while. Putnam county clerk and Freedom of Information officer Dennis Sant refused to release the records. After 37 years in the Putnam county clerk’s office (25 as first deputy clerk and 12 as clerk) and between 20,000 and 30,000 requests, he says this was his first refusal.

“I didn’t want to put my citizens in harm’s way, and it was a great invasion upon their personal privacy,” Sant says.

He had the benefit of hindsight. The request came a few days before Christmas. Sant decided to hold off on making the decision until after the holiday. Westchester and Rockland counties, on the other hand, released their records immediately. The map went up on December 22. Once Sant saw what Journal News did with the information and the public response to it, he says, “I was glad that I procrastinated and waited a few days.”

Sant based the denial on Article Six of Public Officers Law section of New York state’s Freedom of Information Law, which says, in part:

2. Each agency shall, in accordance with its published rules, make available for public inspection and copying all records, except that such agency may deny access to records or portions thereof that:
(b) if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under the provisions of subdivision two of section eighty-nine of this article;
(f) if disclosed could endanger the life or safety of any person;

That’s the same article New York state used to justify the exemption of the new statewide database from public records requests. Gun owners will now be able to keep their county record information private. As The New York Times’s Michael Luo recently pointed out, most states already have provisions that keep permit holder information private.

But should they? Slate’s Emily Bazelon, who has a law degree, wondered the same thing in her piece about the matter. “Why should certain personal information, like food stamp or unemployment insurance applications, or tax returns, remain private—as federal law and some state laws mostly provide—while gun permit records are public?” she asked. Home sales are similarly public — if you’ll remember last summer’s Journatic fake byline scandal, CEO Brian Timpone claimed his writers used fake names in response to lawsuits and death threats against affiliated site Blockshopper for publishing real estate records.

Ultimately, Bazelon tells CJR, Sant was wrong to deny the Journal News’s request.

“I feel strongly that when information is supposed to be public, the first question is abiding by the law, making it public,” she says. “There’s a second question about the editorial judgment of the paper.” The answer to the first question, she says, is obvious. The second is not for Sant to answer.

Rockland County Legislature chairwoman Harriet D. Cornell was one of four who voted against the resolution that condemned the Journal News (she did vote for the resolution recommending that the state government make gun permit records private). Cornell says the map “created a lot of fear” and may have “inadvertently endangered a lot of people,” but “Journal News had the legal right to print that.”

Instead of criticizing the newspaper and urging it to un-publish the map, she sent a letter to Journal News publisher Janet Hasson and editor CynDee Royle suggesting that the paper use its influence in a more productive way by supporting the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendent’s proposals to increase gun control as well as funding for mental health resources. Cornell says Hasson was receptive to her ideas.

“The key question is, what is good for society overall?” Paulson asks. “I personally believe that we should know as much about what our government does as possible.”

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,