Dennis Sant, county clerk for Putnam County, received a standing ovation from attendees at the county’s inauguration ceremony on New Year’s Eve because of his refusal to release information on residents who own guns to The Journal News.
The Journal News Newspaper, a Gannett company, recently posted a map on its website that reveals the names and addresses of homeowners with pistol permits in Westchester and Rockland counties. Many critics particularly assailed the fact that the list included the names of judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and domestic violence survivors.
The Journal News has also been working to obtain and publish records from Putnam County.
“Law abiding citizens, who went through the legal process as required by the state of NY and the various counties, are being singled out as if they have done a crime,” said Assemblyman Steve Katz. “The paper that has done this have put people in jeopardy—prosecutors, judges. The bad guys now know where the guns are and where the guns are not so I just want to single out a very special civil servant from Putnam County who had the integrity and the guts to say ‘No, I am not going to give you the list.’ So I am going to single out Dennis Sant.”
The room roared in applause for Sant’s effort for more than a minute.
“There is the rule of law, and there is right and wrong, and The Journal News is clearly wrong,” Sant said in a statement. “I could not live with myself if one Putnam pistol permit holder was put in harm’s way, for the sole purpose of selling newspapers.”
On Thursday, Sant will be joined by County Executive MaryEllen Odell and state Senator Greg Ball and officially announce he will not be releasing the records of Putnam Pistol Permits to The Journal News.
Ball, who has called for The Journal News to immediately remove the map it posted on its website (LoHud.com), will introduce legislation in the New York State Senate to prevent what he refers to as a “violation of privacy.”
“This is clearly a violation of privacy, and needs to be corrected immediately,” Ball said. “The Journal News has placed the lives of these folks at risk by creating a virtual shopping list for criminals and nut jobs. Publishing this information on a website provides criminals with a map of where they can steal firearms from lawful owners for later use in the commission of crimes. Preventing the theft of guns and their criminal misuse is an important public-policy goal. This map is bad for the good guys and good for the bad guys.”
The Journal News has declined to take down the map.
Journal News President and Publisher Janet Hasson released a statement on Tuesday defending the publication.
“We believe the law is clear that this is public information and the residents of Putnam County are entitled to see it,” she said. “We’re troubled that county officials have apparently switched their position since we first requested the information.”
Under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) “government [collected information] is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government.”
However, FOIL does permit an agency the right to deny access to records or portions of records if the information could, if disclosed, “endanger the life or safety of any person,” among other exemptions.
There are numerous organizations that have gone to battle in the past over FOIL. In American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Siebert, (1981) ABC News was granted access to names and business addresses of the principals of check cashing businesses licensed by the banking department; other aspects of license applications, such as residence addresses, were denied on the basis that providing the information would endanger the lives and safety of applicants and their families.
Addresses were also denied in the case of Joint Industry Board of Electrical Industry v. Nolan (1990) in which the petitioner requested home addresses of employees of contractors employed by NYC Board of Education. The court upheld denial, finding that “the interest of the contractors’ employees in avoiding a substantial invasion of their privacy is favored over the minimal public interest involved in the disclosure of their home addresses” and that disclosure of home address “facilitates entry into an individual’s private life” and that case law interpreting the federal Freedom of Information Act is “unavailing.”
The NYS Department of Health attempted to deny Newsday access to the names of cardiac surgeons in the case Newsday, Inc. v. NYS Department of Health (1991). The department of health claimed that it rejected the inquiry under Personal Privacy Protection Law as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. The court held that the names of surgeons must be disclosed, stating that the public interest outweighed privacy interest on the part of a surgeon.
New York State Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert J. Freeman could not yet be reached for comment.
The Rockland Times reported on Tuesday that The Journal News has hired armed security guards from New City-based RGA Investigations to man the newspaper’s Rockland County headquarters at 1 Crosfield Ave., West Nyack.