BOB GARFIELD: As I just mentioned, following the school massacre in nearby Connecticut, a New York State paper published a map showing the names and addresses of handgun permit owners in its readership area. The Journal News obtained that data the way any citizen can, via a Freedom of Information Request, but such information had never before been consolidated and published in such a user-friendly way.
However, one jurisdiction in the Journal News circulation area, Putnam County, has refused to comply with that FOIA request. This decision violates explicit New York State law, but has a supporter in State Senator Greg Ball, who has been an outspoken advocate of Putnam County's decision. Senator Ball, welcome to On the Media.
SENATOR GREG BALL: Hey, good to be here. Thanks so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Why were people so angry that this material was published?
SENATOR GREG BALL: Look, we’re talking about tens of thousands of people, including the victims of domestic violence who got a permit to protect themselves and their young families. We have many retired New York City retired police officers who spent years putting murderers, rapists, thugs behind bars and now, because of this interactive map and these laws that allowed access to this information, didn’t exist in the age of Google Earth, Google Maps, they’ve created an interactive map where the worst of the worst can now go online and virtually end up on the doorstep in less than 30 seconds.
BOB GARFIELD: You mean, you might have a restraining order against an ex-spouse or an ex-boyfriend and are hiding from him and all of a sudden the Journal News prints your name and address.
SENATOR GREG BALL: And it’s happened, and we have gotten dozens of calls of that nature of mostly women, but men and women who are fearful for their lives and many retired New York City police officers all throughout the Hudson Valley who are absolutely incensed that the Journal News would do this.
BOB GARFIELD: For the sake of argument, let me just stipulate that it was a dumb idea –
SENATOR GREG BALL: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - for all the reasons that you’ve listed and that news organizations often have access to information that they do not print, for a whole host of reasons, whether it's a rape victim's name or a minor child who is arrested for a crime or national security information, or you name it. So clearly, the Journal News could have, as Archie Bunker might have said, “stifled itself, Edith.”
SENATOR GREG BALL: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: But it didn't, and now the Putnam County officials are saying, “You made us angry. We are not going to provide this data to you.” And you support that. But the law’s the law, isn’t it?
SENATOR GREG BALL: Yeah, the law is the law, you know, and as elected officials we have the responsibility to uphold the law, but we also have the responsibility to exercise judgment to protect our citizens. And what Putnam County is gonna do is we’re gonna exercise every legal option to maintain the confidentiality of the people, hundreds of whom are calling the County Clerk, the County Executive and myself every single day.
BOB GARFIELD: I think I’ve conceded the point that the journalistic decision is dubious.
SENATOR GREG BALL: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: But, that said, current law is pretty clear on this and I guess I can see how you can try to change the law for the future, so that similar episodes don't take place, but how can you essentially suppress public information when the law is so explicit about the public's right to know?
SENATOR GREG BALL: From what we have been told, if the Journal News did this for monetary gain, which it seems obvious they did because they’re in the business of selling papers, then, you know, the, the request can be denied.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that would be a novel argument. It might have made the Pentagon Papers decision come out a little differently, since newspapers are, of course, for-profit institutions.
SENATOR GREG BALL: As far as from a legal debate with you, I’ll leave that to guys that are paid a lot more per hour than me. I’ll just tell you as a state senator, legal/not legal, I’m gonna fight until hell freezes over and then fight on the ice, and the Journal News was wrong to do it, and we have a responsibility as elected officials, certainly to obey the law but also to put a little common sense in place that when you have victims of domestic violence and cops that are sitting in their homes looking for somebody to protect them, the Journal News is in dereliction of that duty, and I’m gonna stand up and do the right thing, in my view. And, you know, we’ll fight it as long as we can.
BOB GARFIELD: If you’re right, if this was an utterly gratuitous move by the Journal News that has no journalistic justification, and so forth, is there some risk here of suppressing other important public information along the way to making sure that an incident precisely like this doesn't happen again?
SENATOR GREG BALL: You know, look, I mean, we’ve got to make sure that we have open government and we have to make sure that the public has access to all the information that’s appropriate. There, you know, has been precedent set in the past of sensitive information, whether it be family court documents, tax records or otherwise that are kept private, and I certainly think that this falls into that category. I don't seek to further expansion beyond that, but this is certainly a category in current times, with social media and the world of Google Maps and Google Earth that I think there's a protection that, that needs to be put in place.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Senator, thank you very much.
SENATOR GREG BALL: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Senator Greg Ball is a Republican state legislator in New York, representing Putnam County.