When the First and Second Amendments Clash

A New York newspaper printed the names and addresses of gun owners in their area because the information was public, but gun owners reacted aggressively.

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Battles over either the First Amendment or the Second Amendment often share similar dynamics, with defender/exercisers of the amendments arguing that the freedoms granted by the founding fathers are (nearly) absolute, and should not be modified just because sometimes people get hurt by them. But the issue gets stickier when a situation pits the First against the Second.

A newspaper in White Plains, N.Y., has enraged local (and not-so-local) gun owners by publishing an interactive map revealing the names and addresses of gun owners in the area. The information is public (and New York's Freedom of Information Law is fairly expansive), so it's not as though the newspaper unearthed secret documents or data and published it. What's different now is that the Internet and other technology allows a newspaper—and for that matter, any blogger or website commentator—to make public information very, very public—so much so that the people affected feel they have been violated.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Some of the gun owners reacted aggressively, posting the names and addresses of editors and reporters at the Journal-News (including the guy who does the puzzle page) and making not-so-veiled threats against the journalists' safety. The Journal-News has been unfazed, and is seeking similar gun owner information from another county to publish. That county is balking, and the paper is ready to go to court. Since the information is public, experts believe the paper will likely win, a victory for the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, the paper has been forced to hire armed guards at two of its offices to protect employees in light of the threats. That, in a way, is a victory for the gun owners and their interpretation, at least, of the Second Amendment. The First Amendment is in full force on the paper's website, but without the Second Amendment, editors and reporters might not feel safe publishing it. On the other hand, were so many guns not so easily available, perhaps they might not have felt threatened in the first place.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Did the Sandy Hook Shooting Prove the Need for More Gun Control?]

There will surely be a discussion in Washington—though perhaps not much action—on gun safety and gun rights. And newspapers will continue to defend the right to free speech. But in both cases, there's an issue of sheer judgment. Sure, some information is available to the public and should be. Does that mean newspapers should make it that much easier to learn? Some newspapers routinely report the names and salaries of public employees—even low-level employees. It's not secret, and the workers are paid by public funds. But is it really necessary to publish what most of us consider private information? There's an undercurrent of judgment to such lists, as though the public employees have to defend every penny they make (while well-paid CEOs of privately-held companies do not).

The names of convicted sex offenders are also public. Should newspapers publish these names, perhaps with an interactive map? To a parent, the answer might be a no-brainer; wouldn't you want to know if a pedophile was living in the neighborhood? But publication of such information also makes it virtually impossible for an ex-con to return to society. He or she would be shunned, even in danger, wherever he went. How does someone become part of a noncriminal community in those circumstances?

[See 2012: The Year in Cartoons.]

Gun owners are not by definition criminals, of course. But guns are dangerous weapons if they are in the wrong hands or if there is an accident. Surely, many people would want to know if someone in their neighborhood had a gun. But is the publication of the information itself not just a little provocative? And perhaps it's also a bit revealing—the anonymous people who posted threatening comments on the Internet (along with the addresses of Journal-News employees) probably weren't the sort of people, prior to the controversy, neighbors feared would shoot them. But their aggressive reaction to the Journal-News list suggests some of them might have a dangerous streak.

Exercisers of the First and Second Amendments are understandably vigilant in defending their beliefs. But both should exercise judgment as well.

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