Blowback From Publication Of Gun Owner Data Continues — Threats, Lawsuits And Rejected FOIA Requests
from the men-with-guns-protecting-journalists-from-men-with-guns dept
The battle over the privacy of gun owners continues in New York. Last week, the Lower Hudson Valley Journal News secured the names and addresses of gun owners in two New York counties, publishing the information as an interactive map and framing the “story” as a public service — information people would “want” to have following the Connecticut school shooting.
Needless to say, this drew the ire of gun owners, along with others who felt the Journal News had crossed a line by publishing this personal information. In response, the names and addresses of various Journal News personnel were posted and the paper found itself dealing with angry phone calls and comments, along with anonymous threats and mail coated with a mysterious (but apparently, non-toxic) white powder.
The Journal News of West Nyack, N.Y., has hired armed security guards to defend its offices after receiving a torrent of phone calls and emails responding to the paper's publication of the names and addresses of area residents with pistol permits.
RGA Investigations, a private security company, “is doing private security at on location at the Journal News as a result of the negative response to the article,” according to a police report first obtained by the Rockland County Times (Nanuet, N.Y.) and shared with POLITICO. The guards “are armed and will be on site during business hours through at least January 2, 2013.”
Now, the paper is finding itself stymied by public officials in its search for more gun owner data. Putnam County officials have announced that they will refuse the Journal News’ FOIA request, which it had begun compiling before the backlash began. After receiving an “onslaught” of calls demanding that the county not release the data, Putnam County Executive, MaryEllen Odell, has decided to withhold the requested information, earning an ally in State Senator Greg Ball.
“I’m proud to stand with Putnam County and proud that Putnam won’t be releasing its pistol permit records,” [Ball] said in a statement. “The asinine editors at the Journal News have gone out of their way to place a virtual scarlet letter on law abiding firearm owners throughout the region and I thank God that Putnam County has a clerk with the guts to stand up and draw the line here.”
[Putnam County Clerk Dennis] Sant said he was happy to protect law-abiding gun owners in his county.
“There is the rule of law, and there is right and wrong, and The Journal News is clearly wrong,” he said in a statement. “I could not live with myself if one Putnam pistol permit holder was put in harm’s way, for the sole purpose of selling newspapers.”
Ball has also stated that he will introduce legislation to restrict gun permit information to prosecutors and police. A public press conference is scheduled to announce this refusal, but there’s a good chance this move won’t stand up in court, should the battle head in that direction.
Putnam County officials, who say they will refuse a newspaper’s request to release the names and addresses of residents with pistol permits, would break state law by withholding the data, a state official said.
The opinion, of state Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert Freeman, came after an announcement Tuesday by state Sen. Greg Ball and two Putnam officials that they would refuse to release the data requested by The Journal News of White Plains, which sought the records under the state Freedom of Information Law
Freeman said, the law is clear. “The name and address of any gun licensee are public,” he said.
The Journal News will likely appeal the denial, which would then be heard by the Putnam County government. A second denial would route it to a judge for a formal decision. In the meantime, the Journal News is sticking to its proverbial guns, claiming the info dump was in the public interest.
In other bad news for the paper, it has just been named in a defamation lawsuit filed by a local business, which claims that the Journal News piece which named it as a gun owner caused “customers and clients of First Impression LLC to cease doing business, causing damages in amount to be determined.”
The filing runs only two pages but is loaded with adjectives.
The two-page, bare-bones Summons With Notice accuses the newspaper of “falsely, maliciously, recklessly, slanderously, libelously and irresponsibly publicly stating in the interactive website www.lohud.com that plaintiff First Impression LLC is a licensed handgun owner.”
So, it looks as if the future holds quite a bit of court time for the Journal News. It also looks like this fight over gun owner data isn’t going to end anytime soon.
The thorny question still remains: did the Journal News have the right to publish gun ownership? Certainly, the First Amendment grants it the freedom and the fact that the information was gained through legal channels seems to make that “right” argument unassailable. The Journal News was well within its rights to post the information, no matter how irresponsible its use of the information was.
Unfortunately, the many people who opposed the Journal News’ actions (which includes people on both sides of the gun control debate) have been vocal enough that government agencies are beginning to arbitrarily withhold requested information, stating a sudden (and unlikely) concern for protecting the privacy of gun owners — whose permits are a matter of public record. Allowing government agencies to reject FOIA requests because they don’t like how the information is being used or are worried about public response is a big step in a very wrong direction. Even worse, grandstanders like Sen. Ball are looking to further restrict the dissemination of information by limiting access to gun ownership data to prosecutors and police. Even if this particular restriction seems logical, the simple fact is once this protection is granted for certain data, the system is opened to abuse by other entities and agencies looking to keep as much info as possible under wraps. This will result in more restrictions and limitations and less actual freedom of information.