Louisiana criminalizes publishing gun permit information

Jeff Zalesin | Content Regulation | News | June 24, 2013

Publishing the name or address of a concealed gun permit holder or applicant is set to become a crime in Louisiana, under a pair of new laws recently signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The laws provide that anyone who publicly identifies a gun permit holder or disseminates information contained in a permit application could face up to six months in jail and a $10,000 fine. The laws also impose penalties on state and local government employees who release gun-permit information without a court order.

HB 8 applies to statewide permits, while HB 98 covers permits issued locally. Both go into effect Aug. 1.

Louisiana media lawyer Loretta Mince said that the new policy amounts to an “obviously unconstitutional” prior restraint. She compared the publishing ban to several laws struck down by the Supreme Court as violations of the First Amendment.

“In my estimation, there is zero chance that that provision could be upheld,” she said. Mince predicted that the laws would be challenged in court.

State Rep. Jeff Thompson (R) introduced the bills earlier this year, after The Journal News in New York attracted national attention by publishing a database of information about gun permit holders online in the wake of the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Thompson said that if such information is published, the homes of gun permit holders can become targets for criminals who want to steal weapons, and it can become easier for abusers to track down their victims. He added that gun permit data were already exempt from the state public records law, but the rule “had no teeth” because no criminal penalties were imposed for publishing the information.

But Peter Kovacs, editor of The Advocate in Baton Rouge, said, journalists should be accountable only to their readers for their decision to publish or not to publish such information.

“We have a marketplace for that,” he said. “If people think that newspapers are being irresponsible in what they publish, they can go read other newspapers if they’re unhappy.”

Thompson, however, insisted that the publication ban is constitutional.

“There are limitations on First Amendment rights,” he said. “You have to balance those.”

The risk of harm from publication of gun permit information “outweighs the need of the public to have my name and address as a concealed carry permit holder,” he said.

But Mince rejects the argument that constitutional limits on prior restraints can be balanced away.

“If you lawfully obtain information about who has a concealed weapons permit, you get to publish it,” she said. “That’s what the First Amendment is about.”

Thompson pointed out that the policy contains exceptions that would allow journalists to write about gun permits under some circumstances. It is lawful, for instance, to publish permit information when the permit holder has been charged with a gun-related felony.

Mince said that these exceptions are “not good enough.”

“Even a reporter who wasn’t trying to directly violate the statute might nonetheless find themselves in violation of the statute just pursuing their regular journalism activities,” she said.

For example, she said, journalists could go to jail for reporting on the gun permit of a shooter whom the police had failed to charge.

Mince also said that allowing reporters to write freely about gun permits would pose no threat to the right to bear arms.

“The Second Amendment relates to your right to own firearms,” she said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with whether other people are permitted to know that you own firearms.”

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· NM&L: In wake of Journal News publishing gun permit holder maps, nation sees push to limit access to gun records

· NM&L: Bulk data - whether gun records or anything else - must remain accessible