Don’t forget First Amendment as we debate the Second
“The pen is mightier than the sword.”
For years I had ascribed those words to Thomas Paine, the fiery British-American writer who fanned the flames of America’s revolutionary spirit with his pamphlet “Common Sense.” A quick search, though, reveals it was penned by a little-known (to me) British playwright in 1839, though several writers of greater fame danced around that particular wording of the phrase before Edward Bulwer-Lytton found the syntax that helped it gain a level of immortality.
The phrase kept coming to mind as the story about the resignation of the Cherokee Scout editor in Murphy played itself out in newspapers and journalism blogs during the last few weeks. For those who haven’t followed this story, you may be surprised to hear that there is a connection — of sorts — between Newtown, Conn., and this small town in Cherokee County just west of here.
That connection goes right to the heart of the recent national debate about gun control and the Second Amendment. It also opens up an unusual clash that indirectly pits First Amendment advocates — we in the newspaper business, in particular — against supporters of the Second Amendment. That’s where things get interesting and, in this particular case, fraught with larger implications.
Here are the particulars of the story (many of the facts come from a story on the Carolina Public Press website, written by my friend Jon Elliston. You can find his news story at www.carolinapublicpress.org/13853/request-for-gun-permit-info-puts-local-newspaper-in-a-crossfire). The Cherokee Scout newspaper asked its sheriff’s office for a list of all Cherokee County residents who had concealed-carry gun permits. These permits are issued by the sheriff’s office in each North Carolina county and, according to state law, the information is public record. Two bills have been introduced in the state General Assembly that would make this information private, but as of now it is public record.
I am an advocate for keeping the information public. Who was issued or denied a permit — and why — could be significant. What if a sheriff just arbitrarily denied a permit to someone? Besides, when arguing to keep gun control laws off the books, Second Amendment advocates talk about the need to protect themselves from the tyranny of government.
But if you really want to protect yourself from the tyranny of government, don’t block the free flow of information. Don’t let government operate in secret. All of our public records laws emanate from the ideals enshrined in the First Amendment, that government can’t tell us what to write and what to think, that they can’t block us from protesting against the very government that we elect. I’ll fight like hell to protect the First Amendment because that will allow me to openly debate the merits of the Second Amendment.
Sheriff Keith Lovin in Cherokee County refused the request for the concealed carry permits. The newspaper made the request again, and the sheriff posted the request and his response on the sheriff department’s Facebook page. Lovin, a Democrat, wrote: “There is nothing within the statue that makes the information contained therein a public record. The mere fact that it is information gathered by this office, in and of itself, is not enough,” he contended.
He’s wrong. Until a law passes that prohibits this information from being made public, it is public. Period. Even law enforcement, and in my mind particularly law enforcement, can’t arbitrarily make decisions about what they consider a public document. In Lovin’s defense, he argued that his refusal was about protecting citizens, and he cited his support of the Second Amendment. In effect, he used the Second Amendment as an excuse to ignore the First Amendment.
After it hit Facebook is when things went bad for the newspaper. An avalanche of support for the sheriff showed up on social media, and the Scout rescinded it request. The Washington Post reported that the editor and the staff received death threats. Publisher David Brown and Editor Robert Horne retracted their request for the names of all the county’s conceal-carry permit holders. Here’s an excerpt from the statement published in the newspaper on Feb. 21:
“We must be vigilant in maintaining the public’s right to know. We cannot give away our rights to access to public records. If we do, soon there will be no way to hold government officials accountable for their actions, which will lead to that dystopian future so many gun advocates dread. That said, this matters is not a priority with the Scout… Our readers have spoken, and we always listen to you. We are retracting our request, and the matter is closed.”
As the pressure from readers continued to mount — both with Facebook postings and calls and letters to the newspaper office — the publisher issued another statement the next day, Feb. 22. He apologized for the gun permit request and for upsetting readers. On Feb. 26, Horne, a former Marine who had served in Desert Storm, resigned as editor.
According to an editorial in The Scout on Feb. 19, Horne said publicly he was not going to publish the names of the concealed-carry permit holders. The paper had received information that the sheriff may have been abusing his authority to grant the permits. It wanted to examine who had been granted permits to determine if there was any truth to this allegation. Unlike the newspaper in New York that published the names and addresses of all the conceal-carry permit holders, Horne never had any intention to do so. He was working on another story altogether.
This story focuses attention on a bundle of important issues for journalism and our country. Almost as important to me, it’s also a small-town story. As a publisher, editor and business owner in a small Western North Carolina community, I won’t lob one bit of criticism at the publisher and editor for retracting their public records request. Once the lives of employees and their families were threatened, there was no choice. In another situation on a grander scale, I would argue against ever forsaking one’s principles. Not this time.
The role of social media is also worth considering. Facebook helped build the firestorm of protest, and it started with the decision by the sheriff to post the records request and his denial on the department’s Facebook page. From there, the debate caught fire and spread rapidly, showing the power of social media and its dangers.
Then there is the larger issue of the free flow of information, and there was more than a little irony in the way it was handled in this case. It seems some of those who support the sheriff’s right to withhold this information and who criticized the newspaper really think it’s OK to ignore some of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment? Would it be safe to assume that most of those supporting the sheriff are also gun rights advocates? Would that also mean that some really think we would be better off with guns in our hands but not be able to access information about how our government is operating?
I can promise we would not be better off in that situation. I want the right to argue — openly and freely — about what kind of gun control legislation we should have. That’s what The Cherokee Scout was indirectly supporting by its request, the concept that public information is indeed public. That’s the foundation upon which this country rests.
The pen, indeed, is mightier than the sword, just as an idea is more powerful than a gun.