UPDATE (5pm, February 26, 2013): This afternoon, the Cherokee Scout announced that its editor, Robert Horne, resigned. Horne originally made the records request discussed in my piece below from earlier today and had been with the Murphy, North Carolina-based paper for seven years.
From the paper’s press release, provided to me by publisher David Brown:
Robert Horne has resigned, effective immediately, as editor of the Cherokee Scout and Andrews Journal…
Horne is leaving the local newspapers to pursue other opportunities as well as relocate closer to family.
“We wish Robert well in all his future endeavors,” said David Brown, publisher of the Scout and Journal. “He’s a good man who has done a lot of positive things for the area that should be remembered.”
“I have enjoyed my time working at the Cherokee Scout and Andrews Journal,” Horne said. “I have learned a lot from David and the staff here. I will take what I have learned here and use it in my future endeavors. I wish the Scout and Journal all the best moving forward.”
Horne, a veteran of the U.S. Marines who has been with the newspapers since 2005, will remain on staff in a production role until his departure Friday, May 24.
Brown told me that the Scout this evening is carrying the news of Horne’s resignation in print.
COLUMBIA, SC — Things turned around quickly last week for the Cherokee Scout, the latest newspaper to learn how sensitive gun owners can be about public records and how it feels to confront readers who are both angry and, in some cases, armed.
On February 19, Robert Horne, editor of the small-town Cherokee Scout in Murphy, North Carolina, wrote to his county sheriff with an open records request: “Under NC Public Records Law, G.S. 132-1, I am requesting a list of all Cherokee County residents who applied for/and or have received a concealed carry permit.” Horne’s letter did not detail what the newspaper intended to do with the information, except to say that it was not “being sought for commercial purposes.” That same day, Sheriff Keith Lovin wrote back denying Horne’s request, disputing that the information was public record.
The next day, Horne wrote to Lovin repeating his request, noting he had spoken with a NC press association attorney who assured him the records are public, observing that the request came as state lawmakers are debating whether to exempt such information from open records laws, and “respectfully urg[ing]” the sheriff to “follow the state’s open records law and release the information.” But after the sheriff posted the correspondence between the paper and the department on its Facebook page, things got hairy for the Scout.
On February 21, Horne and Scout publisher David Brown published a letter to readers describing being threatened by “near-hysterical residents as a result of the sheriff’s actions.” They went on to explain that the paper “never had any desire nor intention to publish any names of any person carrying a concealed weapon,” but thought “it might be revealing to share, for example, how many residents in a specific area had gun permits.” And while Brown and Horne also accused Sheriff Lovin of “breaking the law” by denying the paper’s request, and went on to say how newspapers “must be vigilant in maintaining the public’s right to know,” they announced the paper was “retracting” its request and dropping the issue with the sheriff’s department.
The next day, Brown published another “Note to Readers”. This one had a much different tone. In it, Brown apologized for what he called the paper’s “tremendous error in judgment,” without being specific. Brown wrote that his newspaper had “never meant to offend the wonderful people of this fine community,” and added that Sheriff Lovin had the interests of county residents at heart when he denied the paper’s records request. Brown also apologized to the sheriff personally.
Though news of the back-and-forth hit the local TV news days ago, it didn’t flare up in national media until yesterday. The criticism came hard.
Blogger Jim Romenesko on Monday called Brown’s February 22nd note to readers the “most incredible newspaper apology ever.” The Philadelphia Daily News’s Will Bunch dubbed Murphy, NC “Where American Journalism Went to Die.”
Asked to comment for this story, Brown—the Scout’s publisher who has run a column on the First Amendment for years—indicated he probably wasn’t in the right mindset to give a response.
“Everything’s still pretty raw right now,” he told CJR. “Anything I might say would only add fuel to the fire.”