Time for Some Moral Guidelines for the Press
All good people with common sense want to do something to prevent future tragedies like that which occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. What one newspaper in Westchester County, New York did was not good, nor was it sensible.
What the Journal News did by publishing the names of gun permit holders in its Westchester and Rockland papers is legal under the First Amendment provision of the Constitution, but it was at the very least an ethical violation of people's right to privacy. Those gun owners registered with their government, as they're required to do, yet didn't expect to have their names and addresses published in a local paper for all to see.
A statement from the Journal News stated that the staff knew that publishing of the info would be controversial, "but we felt sharing info about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting." Really? I'd like to know what logic was involved in that conclusion. A mentally disturbed young man goes on a shooting binge in a nearby state, so a publisher decides to tell everyone in her paper's distribution area who the legal gun owners are and where they live?
Imagine if that same paper decided to post a reporter outside a Planned Parenthood center when abortions are being offered. Suppose the reporter followed women who had visited the center and then published their names and addresses with a disclaimer saying that it's not known whether an abortion had occurred, but the paper just wanted people to know who visited the place. How about if the paper published all the names and addresses of people on welfare and how much money and food stamps they're receiving? I think it's fair to say that the left in this country would be apoplectic and calling for a new ruling on the First Amendment.
Educated people respect the freedom of the press and recognize how vital it is to the function of a democracy. However, just because you have the right to do something, that doesn't mean that it's right to do it. The job of the press is to be a bulwark that protects the public from oppressive government by exposing corruption and editorializing about civic and political matters. How were the people being protected by exposing legal gun owners to public scrutiny? Not only does the criminal element know who has guns in those areas, but he knows who doesn't have guns.
The paper was able to get the info on gun owners via a public information request, which is also legal. But Putnam County, another of the paper's distribution areas, has refused a request to turn over the info about its residents, citing safety concerns. In one instance, reported by the Putnam County clerk, a woman who was "stalked for a number of years" took great pains to find a "peaceful neighborhood." Three days after the Journal News story surfaced, he said, the woman, who was in the Journal News database, started to get hang-ups on her phone late at night.
Though the Journal News didn't publish phone numbers, the clerk said its information abetted stalkers. The county will have to defend its position in court, but what jury would find for a newspaper that puts women in danger from stalkers? Additionally, how about the thousands of people who live very private lives because of their past experiences? For example, there are victims of domestic violence who are trying to live quietly and anonymously. There are former police officers who have put some vicious criminals behind bars. Should a road map to their homes be provided by a newspaper with no qualms about stretching the Constitution to fit its leftist agenda?
In my opinion, we need a serious conversation about the boundaries of freedom. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, we heard a lot about the need to modify the Second Amendment. Should the same be said about the First? I'm not one who advocates tinkering with our freedoms because of the slippery slope theory. Yet I think most decent people would agree that when a media outlet stretches the Constitution like Turkish Taffy, notwithstanding the potential for harm it can do to a community or to a group of innocent people, the least we can do is hold it up to public scorn. Shame is a powerful weapon when used against those who feel invulnerable to criticism or legal action. I don't expect a scarlet letter on their forehead (or, in this case, their masthead) -- just a slap in the face by a public that is outraged by their lack of decency.