Revealed: Media planned to defy General Assembly on private records AGAIN

By Chad D. Baus

It has been interesting to watch the Ohio media's reaction to Attorney General Marc Dann's issuance of an opinion reiterating that a new state law does not allow journalists to copy the confidential, non-public information of concealed handgun license (CHL) -holders by any means.

Several Gannett-owned newspapers in the state, like the Mansfield News Journal and Bucyrus Telegraph Forum, didn't even bother to write their own protest and have just been reprinting the same piece ad nauseum, and the Warren Tribune-Chronicle once again repeated the false statement that Ohio CHL records are "public records" that are wrongly being treated differently than others.

Yet aside from a few angry op-eds, and other than coverage in two regional newspapers (the opinion was issued in response to an inquiry about the law from Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins), the Ohio media was almost totally silent on this important development.

In fact, it took more than a week since the ruling, but Toledo Blade Columbus Bureau Chief Jim Provance has finally helped that newspapers' readers become informed on the issue, and a quote from the executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association may provide some insight as to why ONA members have kept so mum before now...

From the story:

    Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann sided with law enforcement and concealed-carry gun advocates in an opinion prohibiting journalists from writing down, or in any way recording, the names of gun owners kept by county sheriffs.

    Ohio law allows reporters to inspect records of concealed-carry permit-holders but prohibits them from obtaining copies of the records.

    The attorney general opinion stated the ban on copying the records extends to a journalist walking out of a county sheriff's office with anything other than what he's committed to memory.

    The legal opinion by the state's top law enforcement officer was recently issued after a request by the Trumbull County prosecutor for clarification of last year's change in the state's public records law to prevent a reporter from copying data on the issuance of permits to carry hidden handguns. "Because the only actions a journalist may take with respect to the names, counties of residence, and dates of birth described [in the law] is to see such information, we read the prohibition against a journalist's copying such information as applying to the reproduction of the viewed information by any means, including those you specifically mention - hand-copying, handwritten notes, and dictation," Mr. Dann wrote in a letter to the prosecutor.

Dann spokesman Leo Jennings told the Blade the opinion is a strict interpretation of the language of the law and that the attorney general did not use his influence to affect his staff's analysis.

"The plain language of the statute says you can't copy," he is quoted as saying. "You can't write things down and make electronic copies."

Again, from the story:

    Bob Cornwall, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association, said the opinion clears up much of the confusion surrounding the law. Sheriffs will not have to make copies of permit information and would be able to create a template to place over the records to ensure that reporters see only what the law allows them to see - the names, counties of residence, and dates of births of permit holders.

    "The sheriffs will have somebody stationed with the journalist to make sure all goes as it should," he said. "The opinion is clear. There can be no types of recording devices or notes of any kind taken."

    He said the language of the laws and the attorney general's interpretation of it rule out dictation into a tape recorder or over a cell phone to another reporter.

    When asked whether a reporter could repeatedly walk into the room to read some information and then out to make notes or pass the information along, he said, "I would imagine they could, but it would become pretty obvious after the second or third trip what was being done. The sheriff may stop it at that point as violating the spirit of the law."

The story notes that the provision narrowing the journalist exception for otherwise private CHL records was added to a much broader bill (HB9) designed to better arm the public to enforce their access to public records. The Ohio Newspaper Association, which had orchestrated broad support for the bill among its members, was surprisingly quiet when the changes were inserted into the bill. And now, thanks to revelations from ONA executive director Frank Deaner, we know why:

    Frank Deaner had been bargaining in bad faith, and walked out of negotiations believing he had once again thwarted the clear intent of the General Assembly.

From the story:

    Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said he left negotiations over the bill with the understanding that the last-minute amendment did not apply to handwritten notes.

    "House Bill 9 was so voluminous, and I think this comes down to sloppy, 11th-hour bill-writing," he said. "It's a semantic problem between 'photocopying' and 'taking notes.' A journalist's tool will always include taking notes."

Deaner's claims are completely disingenuous. He knew exactly why a "fix" to the media access loophole was being considered, and what it was intended to address. Yet he admits to having left negotiations having protected journalists' priviledge to copy down the entire list of CHL-holders.

The story concludes with comments from Buckeye Firearms Association chairman Jim Irvine:

    "We would like it if the media didn't have access to the information in the first place," said Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association. "[Then-Gov. Bob] Taft insisted the media have access to the records. This battle goes back years.

    "They've published the names of people who are hiding from people trying to kill them, the names of prison guards who are trying to protect themselves from ex-convicts hunting them down, the names of women who have restraining orders out against people trying to kill them," he said. "How does that do any good?"

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