By Jackson Bolstad
Montanans who have obtained a concealed weapons permit can do more than hide a handgun in their jackets — they can keep it a secret from the press.
In response to Associated Press state- house reporter Matt Gouras’ request for records identifying concealed weapons permit (CWP) holders, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said the right of individual privacy outweighed the merits of public disclosure. His memo in July 2013 to Gouras was written months before a new law protecting the privacy of those legally carrying concealed weapons took effect.
“CWP holders have a reasonable expectation the State will not disclose publicly what they choose to hide from those they have reason to believe may harm them,” the memo said.
AP reporters received vicious online threats after Aaron Flint, a broadcaster with the Northern Broadcasting Network, broke the story on his website. Many anonymous commenters demanded that the personal information of reporters be released to the public, with one suggesting a violent response.
Three months after its request was denied, the AP had yet to indicate if it would take legal action regarding CWP records. Bureau Chief Jim Clarke refused to comment on the matter, declaring that, “everything that needs to be said has been said.”
The attorney general’s decision has raised the hackles of First Amendment advocates in Montana.
“It’s very concerning to me that the attorney general refused to release that in- formation when the law had not yet taken effect,” Jan Anderson, editor and publisher for the Boulder Monitor, said.
Journalists can use the information to provide more accurate reporting on shootings. Members of the public can also use the information when a threat is made against them. Now that the law’s taken effect, reporters and the public will only be able to access the information through a lawsuit.
Mike Meloy, an attorney with the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline Inc., disagrees with the attorney general’s decision to reject the AP’s request before the law went into effect.
Meloy believes the new law, known as SB 145, violates Montana’s constitution.
Concealed weapons permit applicants may want privacy in regards to why they have a CWP, he said, but they cannot reasonably expect that their names remain private.
Under Montana’s constitution, a document is presumed to be open and may only be withheld from public inspection if the demands of individual privacy clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure.
Dennis Swibold, a journalism professor at the University of Montana, believes the AP is being cautious about what they should do.
If the AP were to challenge the law and lose, it would set a bad precedent in the state, making it more difficult to obtain information from the government, Swibold said.
It is the responsibility of the press to push back against the government if officials won’t release information that should be public, Swibold believes. It’s up to the press to make the government prove that privacy outweighs the public’s right to know.
Media organizations in Montana have taken legal action about a dozen times in the past 10 years to gain access to records. In the majority of cases, state courts sided with the media, and the documents were made available for public inspection.
The law passed the Montana Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Montana, signed it months after The Journal News, a New York state paper, published the names and addresses of gun owners in its circulation area, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Anderson believes Montana’s legislators were fearful of the media in Montana emulating The Journal News. That fear helped push the bill through the legislature. She said only herself and a lawyer with the Montana Newspaper Association attended the legislative hearings on the bill. They fought an uphill battle against the bill’s supporters.
The newspaper association hasn’t discussed challenging the law in court and most likely won’t, until a situation arises where information is denied or a member newspaper presses the issue, Anderson said.
Still, Anderson finds it troublesome that CWP record information is now confidential. She’s concerned about potential implications for journalists to effectively report stories and the public to get vital information that might protect citizens.
For now, the information will remain out of everyone’s hands until the law is successfully challenged.