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 Horne originally made the records request discussed in my piece below from earlier today and had been with the Murphy, North Carolina-based paper for seven years.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.”

The owner of radio station WKRK 1320 AM in Cherokee County addressed on Facebook how the saga had rocked the little mountain town:

This week, citizens of our community became upset because of an issue between the local newspaper and sheriff’s office regarding privacy rights vs public record. Social media ‘blew up’ with protests, threats and pronouncements of a boycott.

The Cherokee Scout isn’t the first American newspaper to find itself in the crosshairs for its handling of public information about individual gun owners. In December, The Journal News in White Plains, New York faced a scorching backlash from gun owners after it published names and addresses of residents who had gun permits. The public outcry was so toxic armed guards had to protect the paper’s headquarters.

“After the backlash over the same issue in the state of New York, these idiots should have known what the citizens’ reactions would be,” wrote a commenter, about the Scout, in an online forum for North Carolina gun owners.

And last week, the state legislature in Maine voted to make gun permit data temporarily exempt from the state’s right-to-know law, reacting to the Bangor Daily News’s since-abandoned public records request for information on concealed-weapons permit holders.

There is additional context for this story in this part of the country, though, that also bears repeating here: the rocky relationship between media and county sheriffs.

Cecil Bothwell is an ex-reporter for the Mountain Xpress, an alt-weekly paper in Western North Carolina, who aggressively reported on his county sheriff, Bobby Medford, for years. A judge in 2008 sentenced the sheriff to 15 years in prison on public corruption and extortion charges. In North Carolina, Bothwell says, county sheriffs can be the most powerful elected officials in an area and are virtually beholden to no upper authority.

Now an Asheville city councilman, Bothwell says intimidation and threats were common during his reporting on the sheriff. Vans with dark windows would park outside the houses of newspaper staffers at night. Two deputies had told Bothwell off the record the sheriff said he was going to “take care” of him. He took to wearing somewhat of a disguise when reporting in the field, and borrowing a friend’s car.

“Nothing ever came of it,” Bothwell told me. “It was scary for a while.”

Margaret Williams, news editor of the Mountain Xpress, told me this about the Cherokee Scout and the national criticism it has drawn:

I doubt it’s fair for fellow journalists to judge Cherokee Scout publisher David Brown so harshly. Few people likely know the whole story, and…this is not a case that’s limited to the Deep South. Even in this day and age, Cherokee County and the Murphy/Andrews area is a fairly remote, insulated rural area. More worrisome is what the sheriff’s reaction says about the state of law enforcement and the understanding about public-records law.

Last May, CBS News ran a 60 Minutes broadcast about the dangers one local newspaper faced in reporting on its sheriff’s office in the rural American South.

“When two small-town newspaper reporters in Kentucky began investigating the corrupt local sheriff, they not only got headline stories,” reported CBS’s Byron Pitts, “they also got death threats.”

North Carolina’s concealed weapons permitting program has been covered in other state and national media—offering more context for reporters, commentators or anyone following this story.

According to Raleigh TV news station WRAL, “Roughly 3 percent of North Carolina’s 9.6 million residents hold a concealed weapons permit, a number that is small but on the rise,” with rural areas of the state leading in numbers of permit holders.

In late December The New York Times examined North Carolina’s concealed carry program. Per the Times:

More than 2,400 permit holders were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, excluding traffic-related crimes, over the five-year period, The Times found when it compared databases of recent criminal court cases and licensees. While the figure represents a small percentage of those with permits, more than 200 were convicted of felonies, including at least 10 who committed murder or manslaughter. All but two of the killers used a gun.

The Cherokee Scout is a small, western North Carolina newspaper. But the Scout’s story is larger than that, part of a saga about guns and newspapers and public records that is not likely to end soon.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

 

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent for Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. A former alt-weekly staffer, he has twice been named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the S.C. Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity, and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, and Medium, among others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.