Balancing the public’s right to know with its safety

A post to the JEA email discussion list this month asked for response to the actions of a community paper, which published the names and addresses of gun permit holders. This was in the wake of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., which claimed two dozen lives.

The paper’s story. The Poynter Institute’s report about the publication. But should student news media cover this story, and if so how?

The two issues here would definitely make for some interesting class discussion as well as a news story or point-counterpoint opinion article. I hope some news staffs are inspired to cover the debate around public records.

The two issues are, of course, whether the data should be available to the public and then whether the newspaper was right to publish the database with a map.

For the debate on why records are public, I think Washington state has a wonderful explanation from its “sunshine law”: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.” That is the spirit behind most sunshine laws — the public can hold its servants and agencies accountable only by knowing what those people and offices are doing.

Minnesota law states that all government-collected data is public unless specifically excluded. Here’s a new wrinkle in the private-or-not debate: The Star Tribune reported in August that cameras mounted in Minneapolis police vehicles routinely photograph license plates and add the plate and location to a database — almost 5 million vehicles in the first eight months of 2012. Turns out that data is public, and people have varying feelings on whether it should be. The report used as example the various locations of the mayor’s city-owned vehicle.

Today, Minnesota Public Radio reported that among the 100 requests for the city’s database were several from academic researchers and business opportunists. The story made me realize there are many other uses to public data besides just curiosity and accountability. The data can lead to academic discoveries and new business. One example was the route of the police vehicle itself (a one-day example video is online) and another explored whether a vehicle reposession agent could improve his job with access to the data. Most people probably don’t want their car’s location tracked, let alone published, but this story helped me see different perspectives.

Imagine the benefit of having a discussion with students about the value of public records and how they serve the public’s interest in many ways. Journalists serve the public interest, too — they are the watchdogs of government on behalf of the public. Then, move the discussion to how journalists can best serve the public and whether publishing a complete database is helpful or causes more problems.

I’d love to see some thoughtful examples of this work by students.