North Carolina paper Cherokee Scout withdraws request for gun records, grovels for forgiveness

The Cherokee Scout in Murphy, N.C., did not do the open-government movement any favors this week.

As Jim Romenesko reported, the paper issued an apology for filing a records request with Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin for a list of concealed-carry permit holders in the county, as well as the application. The paper indicated in a letter to readers that it was looking into allegations that Lovin was only issuing permits to people he favored. There was no indication that the paper was going to publish all the names it got.

But Lovin refused to grant the request, and posted the paper’s request, as well as his response and his vow to “support the constitution [sic] and all amendments including the Second Amendment on the department’s Facebook page. I will continue to uphold my Oath of Office [sic] and serve the Citizens of Cherokee County.” He obviously forgot that his oath was also uphold the laws of North Carolina, including the open-records law that said the concealed-permit information is a matter of public records.

The sheriff’s posting the information on the department’s Facebook page naturally got the gun-rights crowd fired up (no pun intended), who promptly denounced the paper’s efforts.

Which brings us to the withdrawal of the open-records request, as well as the apology from publisher David Brown and editor Robert Horne, who called the request “a lapse of judgment.”

“As publisher of your local newspaper, I want to apologize to everyone we unintentionally upset with our public records request for a list of those who have or have applied for a concealed carry permit. We had no idea the the reaction it would cause.

“Sheriff Keith Lovin had the best interests of the people of Cherokee County at heart when he denied our request. The Scout would like to offer an apology to him as well.”

Brown also brought out his and Horne’s bona fides as local folks, with Brown even noting he had been baptized there.

The only lapse of judgment was backing down on the request and kissing Lovin’s boots.

This does not help the Scout, or its readers. Rather, Lovin has learned that he can make the local paper back off and print only the news he wants. He’s also learned he can break open-records laws, which he is sworn to uphold, without any fear of repercussion.

And it will embolden others to follow Lovin’s example and bully journalists into sticking with the press releases they are being spoon fed.

Would the paper had faced a backlash if it pursued the case? Probably. But nobody ever said that journalism was a risk-free enterprise, especially when it comes to speaking truth to power.

Elijah Lovejoy could have probably lived a longer, more prosperous life if he had not challenged the institution of slavery. While the abolitionist publisher paid with his life, he also sent a message that killing the messenger doesn’t kill the message.

Likewise, thugs in Arizona thought they could keep their misdeeds secret by killing Don Bolles, but instead their crimes got even greater media scrutiny.

In the spirit of Bolles and the Arizona Project his death inspired, maybe we should all file a records request with Lovin for the concealed-carry permit list, and let him know that he may have silenced one news outlet but true journalists never give up.

Lovin’s contact information can be found here.

 

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  • http://www.sportsmyriad.com Beau Dure

    Well, thanks at least for including the sheriff’s info. The Romenesko comments have been blaming the victim and leaving it at that.

    You talk a pretty tough game. Maybe you should apply for the open position in Cherokee County and prove what a big tough guy you are. Or are you an armchair general, thinking Brown and Horne should just follow Lovejoy and Bolles, leaving their wives widows and their kids without fathers? (And their staffers in danger as well.)

    Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. That’s true for anyone, and especially true for journalists. Instead, you sit back in comfortable Salt Lake City, not having to worry about your family’s safety, and you call someone about whom you know nothing a “spineless coward.”

    You may never have to prove you’re more courageous than the people you’re so glibly judging. If you stay in Utah, I certainly hope you don’t — that place is far more civilized than Cherokee County, and I hope it stays that way. But I can tell you right now that David Brown is twice the journalist you’ll ever be as long as you maintain the “judge first, gather facts later” attitude.

  • Gloria J.

    First, there is a need for in-depth classes on FOIA. It could include legal, procedural, and practical elements. Then, journalists would be more confident when making and standing by their FOIA requests. Perhaps a webinar so that smaller papers, freelancers, and others with logistical concerns can access the information when needed.

    Second, can small local papers rely on larger ones to make such FOIA requests (on their behalf) thereby giving cover to vulnerable newspapers/journalists? I ask because the financial (advertising), political, and social elements involved in small towns are very real.

    Third, I would like to know if any papers/media are planning to follow this recommendation? “In the spirit of Bolles and the Arizona Project his death inspired, maybe we should all file a records request with Lovin for the concealed-carry permit list,…”

  • http://blogontherun.wordpress.com/ Lex

    Gloria: I’m filing a request this weekend. But just fyi, the applicable law is not the FOIA, which covers only federal executive-branch agencies. It’s the N.C. Open Records Law (generally N.C. General Statute 132).

    The issue isn’t that the publisher and editor didn’t know what they were doing. The issue is that they knew exactly what they were doing, the sheriff broke the law by refusing them what they were entitled to, and then certain members of the public apparently took it upon themselves to threaten the lives of the publisher and editor without the sheriff’s department appearing to have done much about it.

  • Gloria J.

    Thank you for the clarification.

    Is it possible for a large paper to offer cover and make these types of requests on behalf of a local paper? Is that done? I live in a very large city now. But, I grew up in a small one. This situation in NC is quite disturbing. I also wondered about the response or efforts to assist from any of the major papers there.

  • Gloria J.

    P.S. I know these intimidation tactic are not just in NC.

    That’s why I wondered what media in larger cities could do to assist journalists facing such intimidation in small towns and rural areas.


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