Some of the country's top news editors are criticizing a new Louisiana law that punishes journalists who publicly identify gun owners with concealed weapons permits.
At the American Society of News Editors annual conference being held this week in Washington, D.C., several major newspaper editors spoke out against the law during interviews with Media Matters, with some saying that it appears unconstitutional.
“It seems absurd on its face,” said Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman said. “In fact, it seems to me on the surface it is a prior restraint issue.”
“Prior restraint” is government action that prohibits speech, and with few exceptions has been found by the Supreme Court to violate the First Amendment.
The Louisiana law, signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal on June 19, sets penalties of fines of up to $10,000 or six months in jail for those who publish “any information regarding the identity of any person who applied for or received a concealed handgun permit.” The law includes exceptions for cases in which the concealed handgun holder is charged with a felony offense involving the use of a handgun.
The law stems from the controversial decision by The Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., to publish names and addresses of those who had conceal carry permits in their area last year. The information was obtained legally through open public records; in Louisiana, such records are closed to the public.
Journalists in the state have spoken out against the bill, arguing that it chills and criminalizes journalists for doing their jobs. That argument found support at the ASNE convention.
“The reporting of factual information in the public interest is something I support,” said Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, who added that it must be handled carefully, but should not be outlawed.
Martin Baron, editor of The Washington Post, also said he would not necessarily publish such information, but opposes legal restrictions.
“I don't think media organizations should have to pay a price,” he said. “It is up to the news organization to decide if it should be published. I think that is for every individual news organization to make that decision on their own.”
Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times and former editor of The Buffalo News, said “I am not in favor of punishing newspapers who serve the public by getting information out there.”
For Ken Paulson, former editor of USA Today and now dean of mass communication at Middle Tennessee State University, the law has little legal ground.
“It would be difficult to imagine a set of circumstances that would lead to this law being constitutional,” said Paulson, also an attorney. “Publishing information about gun owners is neither defamatory nor a gross invasion of privacy and what this law does is in effect put prior restraint in place.”