Applauding as Your Rights are Taken

A clerk in Putnam County, New York, has placed himself smack in the center of a somewhat controversial episode that has set journalism, press freedom and privacy at odds. It also has a nice “rule of law” angle to it.

Take a look at this report from Poynter, because it’s serving as the informational basis for my post.

The clerk disagrees with a newspaper’s efforts to publish gun ownership records from Putnam County. The newspaper has already done this in a couple of other places, and a whole lot of people are angry about it. So, the clerk is refusing to hand over Putnam County’s public records. His decision is getting praise from all sorts of folks, including a New York state senator who now says he’ll introduce legislation to restrict public access to that kind of record.

These actions, and reactions, are dangerous, ill-considered, and flat out stupid.

Let’s briefly tackle the journalism issue first. I agree with Poynter’s Al Tompkins: there really wasn’t any journalistic justification for the newspaper to publish information about local gun owners. Just because the record is public doesn’t make it newsworthy. It’s just not a story.

My concern lies with one individual’s decision to determine that he won’t follow the law and provide records that by right — not privilege — are open to everyone, regardless of the person’s profession or employer. This clerk is in the wrong, and it’s even worse that an elected official is agreeing with this nonsense.

Those who are supporting him would probably feel differently if he was refusing to release inspection records of the nursing home facility in which a family member just died under suspicious circumstances.

I have actual, genuine trouble understanding people who are essentially yelling “take away my rights to access this information!” That’s what they’re doing, of course. They’re not simply trying to take away a newspaper’s right to access these records. They are willfully giving up their own rights — and trying to revoke yours and mine — to this information.

Let a little bit of my hard-earned journalistic skepticism (some would say cynicism) reveal itself on this issue. The government will — emphasis on will — find ways to restrict your access to what should be public information, either through legislation, ignorance or extralegal means. What the Putnam County clerk is doing is illegal, regardless of what his conscience is telling him.

Do not applaud someone who is violating the public’s right to access information, and certainly do not applaud any political demagogue who hopes to take advantage of such ignorance. These people do not serve a greater public good. They serve themselves at the community’s expense.

3 Responses to “Applauding as Your Rights are Taken”
  1. Ike says:

    I agree — it should never come down to that clerk.But the news outlets that engage in this stunt need to realize that they are putting people at risk. Specifically, women (and their children) who might be in hiding from an abusive ex.Let's say the news outlet publishes a big PDF with the names and addresses, and now the woman's name comes up in a simple web search. It's not just a public record that's been "shared" through FOIA — any technological hurdles meant to protect that privacy are now abrogated.The guy searching for Jane Doe won't spend the time and trouble to search public records in every county of the USA. But the irresponsible publishing of that information carries liability. I would advocate for injunctions preventing the OPEN publishing of that information, for that very reason. If you want to publish it in a database that can be manually queried, that's fine. ("Who has guns on THIS street? THIS neighborhood?") But nothing that is robot-crawled.Does this make sense?

  2. GiniG says:

    I can't agree more strongly that this senator's conduct is ill-conceived and, frankly, an embarassment. I might disagree with you, though, in that I think this information could indeed be newsworthy. Having been both a county prosecutor and a young woman in a volatile relationship, there are a few people whose new interest in gun ownership might have been useful information for me to have. Along the same line, I find it unlikely that a prospective gun owner would be so cowed by the thought of being "outed" that he or she would decline to apply for a gun permit. I think the cost-benefit analysis weighs in favor of the newspaper's freedom (and decision) to publish.

  3. JBG says:

    As a Dean of an Academic Library, one that serves as a select government repository, it is and it simply should be about the information. Privacy issues are a legitimate concern but they are called "public records" for a reason. Hey maybe the clerks onto something? I'm going to stop letting people on that list check out books about transparency laws. Keep on fighting the good fight, Butler.

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