The decision of a New York newspaper to publish the names of handgun owners has sparked a new debate about the Freedom of Information Act and how it relates to two constitutional amendments.
The First Amendment allows the media to publish information of public interest, and the Second Amendment, as interpreted under a Supreme Court ruling, allows people to own guns to use for self-defense and other purposes.
So what happens when a newspaper deliberately publishes a map showing the names and locations of gun-permit owners in two huge suburban counties?
There was a lot of outrage over the decision by the Journal News, a Gannett-owned newspaper, to make it easy for readers to find some gun owners in New York’s Rockland and Westchester counties.
The paper filed a series of state freedom of information requests to get the data and then placed the names and addresses of some gun owners on a street-level map.
The newspaper had a right to the data under several laws.
There is a federal act dating back to the era of President Lyndon Johnson that allows the public to file a request to see most federal government-gathered information that isn’t easily accessible.
There are nine type of exceptions where the federal government can deny a request.
New York has its own freedom of information law, which allows citizens to receive information within two months. The Journal News had partial information on the two counties within days.
The newspaper has been unapologetic.
“We knew publication of the database would be controversial, but we felt sharing as much information as we could about gun ownership in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings,” said CynDee Royle, editor and vice president/news.
“People are concerned about who owns guns and how many of them there are in their neighborhoods,” she said. “Our Freedom of Information request also sought specifics on how many and what types of weapons people owned. That portion of the request was denied.”
While the newspaper didn’t break any Freedom of Information Act rules, it came in for a lot of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
People in favor of the Second Amendment took to the Internet to attack the Journal News for grandstanding and trying to exploit the gun issue for readership.
Others who don’t own guns bashed the newspaper for invasion of privacy and said they would cancel their subscriptions.
And still others said the Freedom of Information Act information didn’t include anyone who owned rifles and shotguns, so the newspaper’s claim to reveal “the gun owner next door” was far from accurate.
The Journal News did succeed in drawing attention to the issue, especially after CNN and other outlets started to report the reader revolt against the newspaper just before Christmas.
“Hundreds of callers have complained, claiming publication of the database put their safety at risk or violated their privacy. Others claimed publication was illegal. Many of the callers were vitriolic and some threatened members of the newspaper staff,” the newspaper said in a follow-up story.
The Journal News published one comment from a caller, who equated the use of an online map to similar products used to show the locations of sex offenders in a neighborhood.
“The implications are mind-boggling,” said the caller. “It’s as if gun owners are sex offenders (and) to own a handgun risks exposure as if one is a sex offender. It’s, in my mind, crazy.”
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And people in journalistic circles are questioning if the display of the data was the best use of Freedom of Information Act information.
At the Poynter Institute, Julie Moos ran down the problems in a December 26 story that showed how other publications tried similar projects in the past, with mixed results.
Two publications pulled gun-ownership databases after they realized privacy issues were involved. Both were in heavily urban areas that were plagued with violence.
Poynter senior faculty Al Tompkins, who is a widely read figure in the journalism world, bluntly said the newspaper needed to do a little thinking.
“Publishing gun owners’ names makes them targets for theft or public ridicule. It is journalistic arrogance to abuse public record privilege, just as it is to air 911 calls for no reason or to publish the home addresses of police or judges without cause,” he said in Moos’ article.
In the end, the free market will decide if the Journal News made the right decision. Profit margins are razor thin in today’s newspaper business, and any loss of subscription revenue would be a tough financial blow to take.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.