June 27, 2013

Last Wednesday Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law a bill that imposes a $10,000 fine and up to six months in jail for anyone who publishes “any information contained in an application for a concealed handgun permit or any information regarding the identity of any person who applied for or received a concealed handgun permit.”

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jeff Thompson, cited The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News’ publication of a map identifying holders of gun permits late last year as impetus for the measure, and said the law represented “a great day in Louisiana and across this nation for those of us who refuse to give an inch when it comes to defending our right to protect our families and we will stand strong in the defense of the Second Amendment.”

But this particular law has a serious First Amendment dimension as well. While the law makes allowances for, among other things, information released under court order or that a permit holder has released on her or his own, it doesn’t provide for information that’s leaked to news organizations.

“I see this as a pretty clear case of prior restraint,” Steve Beatty, the editor of the New Orleans nonprofit news organization The Lens, told Poynter in a phone call. “It’s threatening us with criminal penalties if we publish information we come into possession of.”

When The Journal News’s map (which it’s since taken down) sparked controversy, New York Times media columnist David Carr wondered if it was merely “data-driven link bait“. Beatty said that while his organization makes great use of databases such as one containing state employee salaries, he probably wouldn’t use gun-permit data that way.

On the other hand, if “we found out 80 percent of the teachers had concealed carry permits” or every member of the city council did, that would be newsworthy, Beatty said.

If the Lens came into possession of such information, “I don’t want to be threatened with jail time for publishing,” Beatty said, adding that “there exists a whole set of civil remedies if someone feels like their privacy has been violated. For the state to clearly criminalize this is deeply troubling.”

What’s more, the law’s obliviousness to how news organizations might acquire such information has resonance in the debate about whether reporters or news organizations that publish classified information leaked to them should face legal sanctions. As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple pointed out on Sunday, the 2001 Supreme Court case Bartnicki v. Vopper set a standard for such cases: “If the media outlet doesn’t participate in illegal conduct and the material at hand is of public import, it’s protected.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
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