Leonard Pitts Jr.: Freedom to be left alone takes a hit

BY LEONARD PITTS JR. Published: January 11, 2013
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Exposed.

That, in a word, is how you feel when someone broadcasts your home address without your knowledge, against your wishes. Your correspondent speaks from experience. Six years ago when white supremacists published my home address and phone number on their websites, the first thing I felt was vulnerable.

The folks at the Journal News newspaper in New York state would doubtless say it was not their intention to do anything like that when they published online maps of gun ownership in their area. But intention and effect are two completely different things.

The maps show dots covering two suburban New York counties like a rash, one for each of the 33,614 persons who is licensed to own a handgun there. Had it been the intention of the paper simply to illustrate the ubiquity of guns, those graphics would have done the job nicely.

But the paper did not stop there. Click on any one dot and up comes the name and home address of the gun owner in question.

Gun owners nationwide have been furious ever since the maps went up a few days before Christmas. They have a right to be.

Mind you, they have no right to send threatening notes, or packets of white powder (later deemed harmless) to the newsroom, no right to harass employees of the newspaper, as some have done. But that said, yes, they do have a right to be angry.

The paper has confronted the storm of controversy, including a call for an advertiser boycott, by pointing out that the information it published is not private. As reporter Dwight R. Worley (himself a registered gun owner) noted in an accompanying article, “Anyone can find out the names and addresses of handgun owners in any county with a simple Freedom of Information Law request.”

But that, again, misses the point. There is a qualitative difference between information that is public in the sense that anyone who is so inclined can go dig it out, and information that is public because it has been broadly publicized.

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