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The public’s "right to know"
Posted by: McQ on Sunday, March 18, 2007

Have you been following this little bruhaha in Roanoke, VA?
It didn't take long for Sunshine Week to turn stormy.

At 9:15 last Sunday morning, just a few hours after The Roanoke Times was dropped on doorsteps and shoved into paper boxes across the region, Scot Shippee fired the first shot in what would become the newspaper's biggest Internet controversy.

In an online discussion forum, Shippee blasted the paper for posting on its Web site a database that included the names and addresses of everyone in Virginia licensed to carry a concealed handgun.

Shippee wrote that if the newspaper was so committed to public information, it would only be fair for him to publicly list the home address of editorial writer Christian Trejbal. A column by Trejbal that day had urged readers to celebrate Sunshine Week — a national recognition of the public's right to know — by using the database to see who in their community was "packing heat."

In the furor that followed, irate readers swamped the newspaper with hundreds of calls and e-mails. And Trejbal became the recipient of threats and a suspicious package that drew a state police bomb squad to his Christiansburg home.

There was no bomb, only fallout.

Even though The Roanoke Times hastily removed the database from its Web site, questions remain: Should people be allowed to know who among them is secretly armed? Or did identifying those who carry concealed handguns invade their privacy and make them targets for criminals?
Now this was all supposed to highlight the open nature of government records, thus the "Sunshine week". But the columnist doing so chose to do it by publishing a database which contained all the names of those in VA with concealed carry permits.

So to the two questions. Should people be allowed to know who among them is secretly armed? Well if the records are indeed open and available, why not? But, as the article points out, states handle that issue differently so what is available publicly in VA may not be available elsewhere. But I'd suggest that, other than tell people it is available, it's rather hard to agree that it is the job of a newspaper to publish that data. If people want that information they know how to get it.

The second question is misleading. I'd suggest that any criminal accessing the database isn't going to seek out those with concealed carry permits in order to engage in crime against them. Instead, a criminal is more likely to ensure the person whose house he's going to burgle isn't carrying. Instead of such a list being used to target those with permits, it is much more likely to be used to target those who don't have such permits. Afterall, we know that criminals admit to shying away from situations in which they even think their victim might be carrying.

No, instead, the real question has to do with the judgment of the columnist and his editor:
Some media experts — journalism ethics professor Edward Wasserman of Washington and Lee University among them — have questioned whether a newspaper should publish the information just because it has it.
To me that's the point here. Other than to illustrate the fact that certain records are open to the public, what public need did publishing such a database fill? If the database is to be made available to all seekers is it the job of the paper to do that or the state, who, in effect, is the keeper of the data? And, for safety sake, wouldn't you expect there to be some sort of record of those who would access such data? I mean if indeed a criminal wanted to use it for the purpose I've outlined, does it make sense to make it easy for him to do so just because we can publish the data?

Even if data is, by law, available on the public record, is there a point where publishing such data as the paper did cause an unnecessary invasion of privacy. Now you may argue that open records means no privacy, but if there was a procedure by which you had comply to access them, doesn't that at least provide a minimum level of privacy?

Or, do you feel that no privacy should be expected if the records are open to anyone who wants to see them regardless of procedure?

Last, do you agree with the paper's decision to publish the database? Was that an appropriate and responsible exercise of their first amendment rights?
 
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The papers decision to publish the data base was protected under the first amendment, although it had no news value. Of course news value has become irrelevant in these days of bimbo sightings, celebrity gossip, and useless factoids.

If I were packing heat, I would like every one to know it. Criminals may be dumb, but they aren’t stupid. Self preservation would steer them to other targets.

Open records are fair game for the media, however there is a difference in having the right to publish and the responsibility not to publish if that will cause harm. That’s why we have editors, to make those decisions.

In this case, I would guess the paper has an anti-gun agenda and published the data base in an effort to embarrass gun owners. If that is the case, it is the paper who should be embarrassed.
 
Written By: James E. Fish
URL: http://
I’m not even sure this information falls under the public’s "Right To Know." I can understand why people have a right to know what the government is doing. I can understand why people need access to some records to prevent fraud (real-estate records, auto-titling...), but I now more see why who’s been issued a fire arm permit is any more in the public need than income tax documents are. I can’t just go request a copy of someone’s driving record, or their info from the NCIC. Or a list of everyone on the public dole.

Oh, and even if this was something the public has a right to know, publishing it was just a political trick.
 
Written By: Ryan
URL: http://
I have applied for a CCW permit in Florida. Florida allows out-of-state residents who can pass an FBI background check to receive a CCW. This includes persons that live in states with severe restrictions or no CCW permit laws. In Florida you have state protection from the release of any information about you or even your name. There are two basic reasons for this from what I have read; harassment from the anti-gun folks and that little bit of mystery that increases the concern of the criminal about who DOES carry. I have a third concern. If the government officials from such restrictive states could obtain that information they could “watch” their citizens who have out-of-state authorized CCW, but can not carry in their home state. Florida has the largest recognition of CCW with 26 other states recognizing it.

Some may say I’m paranoid. Well in Maryland, the Attorney General had the weapons seized that were owned by a man named a “citizen of the year” in 2000 for his work with police in Baltimore to stop drug dealers and make the city safer. He was a Vietnam veteran having served in the U.S. Army from 1965-1971. And he was in the Maryland National Guard from 1985-1989. This citizen was refused a gun permit to be a security guard/investigator and (from WBAL radio reports) had his weapons seized because he “could” have had a felony conviction. (mid way in the artricle-http://www.theamericanview.com/index.php?id=617). As a young soldier he was in a bar and was called a “baby killer” and he slugged the guy. He was arrested and could have being given a year or more in jail and a felony assault conviction. The judge weighted the evidence and the situation and let him off with a misdemeanor charge. But Maryland’s esteemed AG didn’t like citizens having weapons, so he made his own interpretation of the law and put that gentleman through the justice system’s wringer. the citizen hired a lawyer (no ACLU help) and eventually won and had it weapons returned (to his wife). Still think I’m paranoid?

 
Written By: AMR
URL: http://
The question of ethical behavior, in this case, depends largely upon individual viewpoints concerning the ultimate net outcome from allowing citizens to own and carry firearms. From the standpoint of a person who believes the mere presence of firearms in both private businesses and homes, as well as in public, constitutes a significant threat to society at large, the publishing of CCW lists could swing public opinion against liberal carry laws and towards greater restrictions on gun ownership, thus probably leading towards a reduction in total gun violence. Given Trejbal’s mocking comment towards common reasons behind gun ownership, I would not be surprised if he regards civilian firearm ownership as unnecessary, and at the very least sympathizes with the above viewpoint on gun violence.

From my own standpoint, I have to question the need to publish the entire contents of the CCW lists online, rather than simply point to their existence and availability. Given the reaction to previous incidents in South Dakota and Florida, the editorial staff should have known the public reaction would be swift and overwhelmingly negative.

I wonder if Trejbal would extend his love of open government to medical records, seeing as he believes that the involvement of the government makes information public business?
 
Written By: Inebriated Arsonist
URL: http://
While I would agree it was within their rights to publish the list, I disagree with the decision to publish.

I should reserve judgment since I did not see the whole article, but sunshine laws are more about what is the government doing not what other citizens are doing. Yes, I know, members of government are citizens.

So it would have been newsworthy, if say, Representative X voted against the CCW law, but, in fact, did show up on the list. That still would not have been reason to publish the whole list.

It would be interesting to know if the rest of the article dealt more with the workings of the government, such as a list of all citizens who received procurement dollars, especially, non competitive bids from the local government. That, to my mind, is what sunshine lines are about.
 
Written By: Andy
URL: http://
another side...
Making this info available is a way to check up on the governments accuracy in passing out these permits. If I see my neighbors name on the list and he is a known felon.........well
It happens all to often
 
Written By: darohu
URL: http://
I am always very very leery of newspaper/media people running around about "sunshine" and "the people’s right to know" mainly because their idea of sunshine and "right to know" is always massively different than mine, and severely limited. For example, there’s LOTS of information about the individual members of the 4th estate that I think are incredibly relevant that the public needs to know, but we won’t get it. At the end of the day, very few of them actually care about the "right to know" as much as they do about their ability to let us know only what they want us to know (hence, the distressing lack of digging into the Sandy Berger affair, for instance)
Even if data is, by law, available on the public record, is there a point where publishing such data as the paper did cause an unnecessary invasion of privacy. Now you may argue that open records means no privacy, but if there was a procedure by which you had comply to access them, doesn’t that at least provide a minimum level of privacy?
There is a difference between having the records be available in some fashion to the public, and publishing them in an easily accessable format. By all rights, I’d pay to see how the staff of this paper would howl and bellow if someone pulled together any and all public information about them and dissemminated it in an easily accessed and widely distributed format.
Or, do you feel that no privacy should be expected if the records are open to anyone who wants to see them regardless of procedure?
No, a minimum of privacy and decency should be expected. People with these types of permits have shown some type of need for them. That alone should be enough to give you pause...unless you have an agenda that is.
Last, do you agree with the paper’s decision to publish the database? Was that an appropriate and responsible exercise of their first amendment rights?
There is no real pressing need for the public to know about this, except to press home a political point, which is dead wrong misuse of public records in this case.

Sunshine week indeed.
 
Written By: shark
URL: http://
There is no real pressing need for the public to know about this, except to press home a political point, which is dead wrong misuse of public records in this case.
It often comes down to whose ox is being gored
 
Written By: darohu
URL: http://
Several of the people on the list have carry permits because of the specific threat of an individual stalking them. I understand that some of these people have felt the need to relocate because their security has been threatened.

Their lawsuits are not the ones which will bankrupt the paper. Anyone who does not have a carry permit and is mugged has a case that they were targetted because their absence from the list identifies them as a safe victim.
 
Written By: triticale
URL: http://triticale.mu.nu
their absence from the list identifies them as a safe victim.
Hardly a safe assumption... Do you, or anyone else really believe this list identifies all or even most of of those carrying concealed weapons?
 
Written By: darohu
URL: http://
If I see my neighbors name on the list and he is a known felon.........well It happens all to often
How often, and how do you know?
Do you, or anyone else really believe this list identifies all or even most of of those carrying concealed weapons?
Substantially all the legal ones, excepting police and other law enforcement. Typically around 4% of eligible individuals go through the process of getting a CCW (link) For 2006, Virginia had about 5.5 million 21 or older, and about 136,000 CCW permits, for around 2.5%; the percentage might be a bit higher, since some of the 5.5 million will be ineligible based on criminal history or other disqualification.
 
Written By: JohnS
URL: http://
It often comes down to whose ox is being gored
Please make your real name and contact information available in that case.
 
Written By: shark
URL: http://
Truth be told, I’m more in the transparency crowd rather than privacy—and transparency, mind you, is not a one-way mirror. I’m not going to wag my finger at someone who publishes information "just because they have it." I’m not the boss of what’s "responsible," although their customers may be. It’s their ink, their money, their reputation, and their fallout to clean up. Personally, I’d prefer that CCW holders at least had some way of telling who was looking them up, but I’m not having trouble seeing the silver lining here, because this situation could work out for the better in the long run anyway, as I’ll argue below.

Before, the information was available to the few who knew about the database, and CCW holders were likely ignorant of who was looking them up anyway. Now, they know that anyone and everyone with even the slightest interest has access to the information, and CCW holders can take action based on that fact. So can the people who don’t currently own guns and/or concealed carry permits. Because really, if I were living across the river in Virginia without a CCW, after the list was published, I’d feel a sudden need to acquire such a permit (and a reliable firearm to go along with it) and announce it publicly.

Imagine if this does result in fewer crimes against CCW holders, and more crimes against people who are identified as non-carriers. That’d raise the risk of not packing, would it not? Nothing would be more satisfying than to see a backlash of more citizens of the Commonwealth purchasing firearms, packing that heat and maybe joining the NRA.

The "enlightened self-interest" thought process might go something like this: "Go ahead, publish the database, and do it regularly. If someone wants to harass me for it, well, I’m the one with the gun! Chances are, fewer people are going to mess with me now—an armed society is a polite society."

So if the intent was to do damage to the pro-gun crowd, it was a rather counter-productive way to go about it. If anything, this will mobilize gun owners and advocates, as we’re already seeing. If I were running the Virginia NRA or if I were a politician looking to make gun rights an issue, I’d pick up a copy of the newspaper and browse through my newest mailing list—it’s a pre-packaged list of people who are currently pissed-off gun owners. Bad timing for the gun control crowd, too, with the DC Circuit decision just across the river having come through so recently.
 
Written By: Bryan Pick
URL: http://www.qando.net
I’m more in the transparency crowd rather than privacy—and transparency, mind you, is not a one-way mirror.
As a retired journalist, I am glad not everyone wants to kill the messenger.
 
Written By: James E. Fish
URL: http://
I wonder what kind of outcry would happen if abortion records were public domain instead of covered by medical privilege if say Fox news would have published the data on people who have had abortions.

Imagine the protest that the left would make over something like that.

 
Written By: retired military
URL: http://
I can’t say as I find this such a big deal for CCW licensees. What do they really care if everyone knows that they may be packing? It’s those who don’t have such a license that may have been harmed here. Bryan may be right about the backlash, as well. The report sure made me think about getting a CCW license just for posterity’s sake.
[Blah, blah, blah] Because really, if I were living across the river in Virginia [blah, blah, blah].
This only begs the question: Why don’t you live across the river?
I wonder what kind of outcry would happen if abortion records were public domain instead of covered by medical privilege if say Fox news would have published the data on people who have had abortions.
That’s not a bad analogy. Of course, the "rights" are construed differently by the courts. One is considered such a fundamental constitutional right that the SCOTUS is loathe to place any limits on it, while the other is merely mentioned in an Amendment.
 
Written By: MichaelW
URL: http://asecondhandconjecture.com
[Blah, blah, blah] Because really, if I were living across the river in Virginia [blah, blah, blah].
This only begs the question: Why don’t you live across the river?
Heh, going to school here for two more months (roughly 1500 hours, but who’s counting?). After that, I’m headed back to southern California for a little while, and then... well, it depends on what opportunities pop up.
 
Written By: Bryan Pick
URL: http://www.qando.net
Since, as we all know, the pen is mightier than the sword, it is only fair that someone publishes the names and addresses of all those journalists who are packing ink.
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
One is considered such a fundamental constitutional right that the SCOTUS is loathe to place any limits on it, while the other is merely mentioned in an Amendment.

Like it or not the Constitution gives the Supreme court the final say in interpreting the Constitution. SCOTUS can and has been wrong, but it’s decisions are the law of the land until reversed. I disagree with many of the courts decisions, but that is irrelevant, the Constitution only gives me the right to gripe about it.
 
Written By: James E. Fish
URL: http://
Since, as we all know, the pen is mightier than the sword, it is only fair that someone publishes the names and addresses of all those journalists who are packing ink.


It’s a nice phrase, but you grab a pen, and I’ll grab a .357, then we will find out which is mightier
 
Written By: James E. Fish
URL: http://
Sure they have a right to publish it if its public record. I wouldnt care if people knew i had a conceled carry permit. I want them to know it, but that doesnt change the fact that this paper likely has some asshat agenda and it makes them look foolish and like a high school kid trying to annoy someone they don’t like.
 
Written By: joshb
URL: http://www.the-schragnasher.com
So, the criminals now have a list of every home that they now know has a gun.

Easy pickings. Wait till no one is home, and then ransack the place.
 
Written By: Keith_Indy
URL: http://inactivist.org/blog/keith_indy
I disagree with many of the courts decisions, but that is irrelevant, the Constitution only gives me the right to gripe about it.
You know, according to you, you don’t have that right. You only have the privelege to gripe until the SCOTUS screws up that decisions.

McCain-Feingold[/god voice whispering]

Oh, wait, I forgot...

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp
 
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
There’s a saying: Concealed means concealed, not out in public.

This jackass can throw out all the bull he wants, fact is he did this not to ’bring sunlight to public records’, but to screw with people who have carry permits. And apparently, he was so overcome with his virtue he either didn’t consider the problems it could/would cause for people, or didn’t care.
 
Written By: Firehand
URL: http://elmtreeforge.blogspot.com
Wait till no one is home, and then ransack the place.

Might net them some ammo. It’s a concealed carry permit.

And then there’s the matter of gun safes.
 
Written By: Achillea
URL: http://
Might net them some ammo. It’s a concealed carry permit.
Unless of course, they have more then 1 gun in the household.

While it would be interesting, and I could get away with it, I have no desire to try and conceal all 5 handguns I own on me at the same time.

And gun safes are not required. And yes, some people leave guns at home in dresser drawers, and under pillows.
 
Written By: Keith_Indy
URL: http://www.asecondhandconjecture.com

 
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