The Connecticut school shooting has pushed the discussion of gun control back into the media spotlight, along with providing a convenient soapbox
for lawmakers, lobbying groups and pundits willing to politicize tragedies to push their agendas through. There's been a lot of vitriol on both sides of the issue, with discussion of Second Amendment rights often leading those involved to forget all about the opposing side's
First Amendment rights.
One aspect that has
changed is the sheer amount of personal information available to those involved in this debate, which results in the sort of exchange that played out recently in New York. The Journal News, covering the Lower Hudson Valley, decided to post a Google map that showed the names and addresses of everyone with handgun permits in Westchester and Rockland counties
. This information was gathered via a Freedom of Information requests.
Published under the fear-inducing title "The Gun Owner Next Door: What you don't know about the weapons in your neighborhood
," the interactive map drew plenty of heat from gun owners who felt their personal information shouldn't have been made public. The map had the slight potential to affect criminal activity, either by steering would-be burglars to safer, weapon-free households, or to give these same hypothetical opportunists a list of addresses from which to poach guns while their owners were at work.
Also troublesome was the inference made ever so lightly by the article's title: that weapons were dangerous, and by extension, so were their owners. The timing of the article was also problematic -- and intentional. The FOIA requests went out after
the Newtown shooting, skewing the purpose of the info dump even further.
A red-dotted map indicating clusters of gun owners easily, under the circumstances, continued the connect-the-dots inference: with so many weapons around, surely the non-gun owning citizens of the Lower Hudson Valley had something to fear. In totality, it was a badly timed, name-and-shame piece that painted gun owners as ticking time bombs, opening with the story of a mentally disturbed man who had put together a large cache of unregistered
weapons, "without any neighbors knowing" -- something no one would have had any interest in if he hadn't used one of his guns to shoot a neighbor in the head. Quotes on both sides of the issue are scattered throughout, but the implication was clear: guns are dangerous, whether in the hands of their rightful owners, or borrowed by murderers like Adam Lanza.
The question arises as to whether the Journal News should have published this information. Clearly, the gun owners knew (or should have known) their information was a matter of public record. But should it have been used in this fashion -- or at all? Their personal information was always a FOIA request away, but does that grant a press entity the right to tie this info into an agenda-loaded piece?
The answer, of course, is that the Journal News had the right to use it in this fashion, thanks to the information being of public record and the First Amendment. The paper has received tons of criticism for this piece, and rightfully so, but that's how free speech works. The response, an info dump on anyone involved with the Journal News, spearheaded by former lawyer Christopher Fountain
, is also
how free speech works.
Again, publicly available information was used to compile addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, Twitter/Facebook accounts, of Journal News employees, as well as various Gannett executives. Techcrunch refers to it as a "transparency arms race," granting the argument a bit of nobility it certainly hasn't earned
. It's simply ugly eye-for-an-eye tactics that result in nothing more than each side of the issue becoming more firmly entrenched.
Both info dumps will have their consequences, in some form of harassment, most likely. Fountain's info dump more clearly paints the Journal News staff as villains, with the original piece leaving that on a more implicit level. Neither group involved has any true
expectation of privacy, but both have claimed "victim" status. A followup post at the Journal News mentions that it has received threats along with the normal complaints
, but that's something it clearly should have expected when it published a map that singled out gun owners for legal activity. (It should also be noted that the headline writers threw some slant into this post as well. The first headline, appearing at 8:39pm on Dec. 25th read "The Journal News/Lohud.com assailed for publishing map of permit holders." The newer headline, published 10:53pm, reads "Journal News' gun-owner database draws criticism.")
Fountain's response, while troubling in its own way, should also have been expected. Many people still labor under the illusion that their private lives are their own, while leaving so much exposed publicly via social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as by any number of government services. Failing that, there's always the phone book, which still publishes names and addresses of a majority of US citizens -- a service that is considered default unless the individual makes the effort to opt out.
The protections granted by the First Amendment will continue to generate ugliness that's often hard to defend. In this case, it opens a lot of people up to harassment and possible danger. People may decry "irresponsible" journalism, but if the First Amendment is to remain intact, that's going to remain a constant. The solution is always more speech, which can take many forms, many of them just as ugly as the original bit of controversial speech.