How public should public gun records be?

Screen Shot 2012-12-27 at 10.54.07 AMThere is public information, and there is public information.

If someone makes publicly available data about sex offenders more readily accessible, that might help protect children. But it could also make it more difficult for offenders who have finished paying their debt to society to get on with their lives — theoretically increasing the risk that they will reoffend.

If the names and addresses of people who signed a petition in opposition to same-sex marriage are posted online, it may expose the tactics of anti-marriage activists who fooled people into thinking they were signing something else. But it could also expose sincere gay-marriage opponents to ridicule or worse for simply exercising their democratic rights.

It’s a discussion I’ve had with my students on several occasions, and now the dilemma has spread to guns. The Journal News, a Gannett paper that covers the affluent suburbs of Westchester County, N.Y., and beyond, has put together a map showing the names and addresses of people who hold permits for handguns, which it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“About 44,000 people in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam — one out of every 23 adults — are licensed to own a handgun,” writes Dwight R. Worley of The Journal News.

As with the examples I cited up top, this is public information. The Journal News has every legal right to do this. But it has prompted an outcry from gun owners and others who say the information ought to be private. One critic has responded by posting the names, home addresses and personal information of every Journal News employee he can find, reports Patrick Clark of The New York Observer.

Greg Mitchell has a detailed report at The Nation, and J. David Goodman recaps the story at The New York Times.

Personally, I’m not sure what to make of this. I’ve been trying to think of a journalistic or social good that has been accomplished by publishing this, and I’m having a hard time thinking of one. I guess if I had a neighbor who behaved erratically, I’d want to know if he might have a legally obtained gun. But that seems like a stretch.

Before The Journal News put together its map, the information fell into a gray area — public, yes, but not easily accessible. Is there a reason for some types of information to be public but also hard to get? Is there anything we can or should do about that in the age of the Internet?

Trust in government requires public access

During the weekend, more than 20 of the state’s daily newspapers, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, the New England First Amendment Coalition at Northeastern University, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and New England Newspaper & Press Association, published this editorial endorsing legislation to increase government transparency. A list of those newspapers can be found here. Media Nation is proud to lend its support.

The walls Beacon Hill has erected between itself and those it governs have taken on two dramatically different faces.

Outside, they show decades’ of wear at the hands of those fighting for better access to their government. Inside, they’re increasingly pocked with a taint that thrives in the absence of light.

That taint, most recently seen in a disturbing chain of high-profile corruption cases, suggests any benefits such barriers provide to the efficiency of lawmaking are grievously undermined by the efficiencies they also provide to those more interested in lawbreaking.

The felony convictions of three successive House speakers – and a Probation Department scandal that threatens to reach into every corner of public service – clearly indicate state transparency laws are in dire need of improvement.

Central to that effort is eliminating exemptions that free the governor’s office, Legislature and judiciary from having to live by the meeting and records laws that apply to every other public office in this state. Just as important is making it easier and more affordable for people to take advantage of the access already protected by a law that predates e-mail and the Internet.

It’s an area where minor advances have been made but substantive reform has been routinely killed or ignored.

Given recent scandals and polls showing a deep and growing distrust in government, we hope this year is different.

That notion will soon be tested on several fronts as lawmakers consider a number of initiatives.

One bill seeks to reduce the cost of obtaining records, requiring state agencies to make commonly sought public documents available electronically. It would also cut administrative costs and processing time associated with such records requests.

Another would strengthen the enforcement and investigatory powers of the Supervisor of Public Records.

A third would assess penalties against lawmakers who purposely skirt access laws and would cover the legal fees of those who successfully challenge them. And several seek to breach that battered and stained wall around Beacon Hill, subjecting the Legislature to the state’s Open Meeting Law.

Critics of the measures have focused on the financial and manpower burdens they impose on records keepers. Yet this push for more easily accessible records, already successfully implemented in other states, holds the promise of reducing those burdens.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, following the June conviction of his predecessor, Salvatore DiMasi, vowed to regain voters’ faith in state government.

“Today’s news delivers a powerful blow to the public’s trust in government,” he wrote then. “One of the things that I find most disturbing – and the thing I am most committed to changing – is the public’s view of politicians and public sector employees.”

Fewer walls – legal, financial and technological – would go a long way toward that goal.

Photo (cc) by Andy Connolly via Wikimedia Commons.

In Wisconsin, a FOIA request too far

William Cronon

As a journalist, my inclination is to support public-records laws that guarantee maximum disclosure. As an ordinary citizen, it’s sometimes unclear to me exactly how far those laws ought to go.

You may have heard that Wisconsin Republicans have filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain private emails written by or to a history professor named William Cronon, whose blog has become a focal point in the battle over the rights of public-employee unions in that state.

Cronon may have to comply because he teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a state university and thus subject to Wisconsin’s strict public-records laws.

One strong argument against disclosure — and one invoked by Cronon himself — is the principle of academic freedom. That may well be how Cronon beats this, yet it strikes me as an easy way out. Why should a professor be exempt while, say, a $50,000-a-year career employee in the highway department is subject to having his private emails revealed in response to a FOIA request?

I should note that this does not affect me personally. Northeastern is a private university. But I don’t see why I should be safe from the long arm of FOIA while my colleagues at UMass are not.

Like Paul Krugman, I make some attempt to use my work email address for professional business and my personal address for everything else. But it’s mainly for my organizational benefit, and I’m not all that painstaking about keeping the two accounts separate.

I’m not sure what the answer is. It seems to me that some officials higher up the food chain ought to be subject to FOIA laws, but that ordinary employees should not. Of course, such officials’ correspondence with ordinary employees would be covered. But I shouldn’t be able to FOIA the email of anyone just because he or she happens to draw a government paycheck.