Publishing Gun-Owner Names: Can Public Information Be Too Public?

On December 23, the Journal News published an interactive map showing the names and addresses of all pistol-permit holders in two New York counties. Some 43,000 comments later, the battle over the paper's move rages on. Incensed gun owners claimed the article made their homes targets for thieves and drew unwarranted attention to them "like it was some sort of sex offender registry." More than 20,000 people responded by circulating the author's address, phone number on social media in a "How do YOU like it?" strategy.

It didn't end there. On January 3, Putnam County officials refused the paper's request for its pistol permit records, citing the risk of "endangering citizens."

Is it Legal?

The fight will probably go to the courts, and the county will probably lose, because the newspaper is perfectly within its legal rights to publish the information. The information was obtained legally, and everything published was available, for free, to any resident who asked.

According to Mark Rumold, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the issue is cut-and-dried: "I can say, in no uncertain terms, that publishing the information was legal and squarely protected by the First Amendment. Whether or not publishing the information was the right thing to do, or smart, or in the public interest, is probably a question of journalism ethics that I'm not qualified to answer."

Another criticism – leveled at both the newspaper that published the data and the gun owners who later published the author's address – is that it's a question of "intent." According to that argument, if the intent of the publication was to shame the named parties, the First Amendment doesn't protect that.

Again, Rumold dismisses the argument: "The First Amendment, if it protects anything, certainly protects the publication of truthful, lawfully obtained information about a topic of significant public interest. That protection includes shielding a newspaper from civil liability – for example, for violations of privacy." He adds that the line gets blurry in some "edge cases," such as publicizing a rape victim's name, but, in his opinion, "this case doesn't even approximate that level of privacy intrusion." So until someone comes out and says "Let's all meet at 5pm to steal their guns," Uncle Sam is fine with it.

But Is It Right?

As ReadWrite's Fruzsina Eördögh pointed out in a recent article on minors' privacy rights, having the ability to do something isn't a green light to go ahead and do it. Journalists choose not to print information all the time, if they believe that information could cause harm.

Legal does not equal ethical.

Clearly, the paper published the list to attract readers, and that worked in spades. It's less obvious that it considered the additional ramifications of its actions. Still, all of the permit holders referenced in the article are over 21 and (one would hope) aware of the fact that their permits were open to the public. If they were not made aware of that fact, the fault lies with the permitting system – not the newspaper. Rumold agrees: "In my opinion, for those upset about the publication of the information, I think their grievance is with New York's legislature's for making the information a public record."

What Happens Next?

Governing bodies clearly have failed to anticipate the kind of proactive publication modern technology allows. While publishing a database of public information may be perfectly legal, it could very well cause unintended headaches. Over the next few years, we'll probably see a lot more protections against massive data aggregation pop up in the form of data throttling or outright bans on publication, followed by court challenges to all those moves.

We'll see how that all plays out, but for now, it looks like the press has the advantage.

 

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.