Resolution: First Amendment also at risk

Second Amendment advocates should not be the only ones concerned about New York’s SAFE Act, a law passed in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

The state’s gun control law is dancing all over the First Amendment as well.

Gun owners were understandably upset when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature passed the SAFE Act in January. The law restricts access to some types of guns, bans many so-called assault weapons, includes provisions that could penalize many legal gun owners and makes use of a $500 reward for those who give authorities information about those who own banned weapons. Gun owners have said, over and over again, overreacting to a tragedy is no reason to limit how Americans exercise their constitutional rights.

Also in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, a newspaper in Westchester, N.Y., filed a Freedom of Information act request for all pistol and conceal carry permits in their coverage area and then used that information to create a map which they published in print and online. It was a foolish act that state legislators used to justify an opt-out clause in pistol and conceal carry permits to allow gun owners to keep that information private.

Much as Second Amendment advocates say the SAFE Act is an overreaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the push for privacy regarding gun permits is an overreaction to a blatantly poor decision made by one newspaper in eastern New York state. Traditionally, there have been few exceptions to the free press clause in the First Amendment – and avoiding a general perception of harm is not among them. But that is the logic being used to hide this previously public information. We understand gun owners’ assertion that the fact pistol permit information is public doesn’t necessarily make it newsworthy. It is information, we might add, which hasn’t been published in at least 15 years in the OBSERVER’s coverage area, nor is it intended to be published.

It’s one reason we take particular umbrage with Chautauqua County legislators’ gleeful rush to further gut the First Amendment. County legislators approved, by a 20-5 vote, a resolution asking the state to make more private the previously public information about gun owners. We stand with legislator William Coughlin, D-Fredonia, in his eloquent defense of the First Amendment during Wednesday’s legislature meeting.

“We gave the press the opportunity to question, at any time, and we made our records open,” Coughlin said. “So, what we are doing here is, we are violating the First Amendment right, the right of the press, to come forward and look at governmental transactions. … You are now infringing upon what is the press’ right to understand what is going on in government, and what the transactions are that are happening in government.”

Coughlin is right. By the flawed and troubling logic used by state and county legislators, nearly every action taken by and through government could be kept private, to the great detriment of our society. Under such logic, governments could create opt-out forms making any act of government secret based on so-called privacy concerns. What is to stop politicians from closing meetings and voting in secret? Environmental records, campaign spending, legal records, birth records, pay records for public employees, arrest records and other information could all be kept secret, based on nothing, really.

If it is wrong to restrict the Second Amendment in reaction to a tragedy, then it is also wrong to restrict the First Amendment in response to the same tragedy. The SAFE Act and events that have happened in its aftermath do both. In this case, there is only one difference between the assaults on the First and Second Amendments in New York state.

Those who protect Second Amendment rights came out with guns blazing while, pardon the pun, First Amendment advocates weren’t quick enough on the draw.

It’s hard to tell what will happen to the protections afforded under either amendment now that the cat is out of the bag.