Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Shadows in Sunshine

Database decisions by two newspapers have me wondering what they are trying to prove. The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch has for some time, it turns out, been asking for and receiving database information on students. That is, until the Dublin school system handed over its database over the objections of school board president Chris Valentine and before parents were notified.

The Dublin News says Valentine's e-mail sent parents into a tizzy; in the interest of full disclosure, one of those parents is my brother who doesn't care to have his children's names, ages, birthdates, telephone numbers, name of school and home addresses floating around anywhere beyond the school system.

The Dispatch's defense of its request is abysmal. Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison wrote this: "How ironic that during Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of Americans' rights to public records, controversy swirls in Dublin over the release of such records."

Here's the link to the Sunshine Week site, which says this: ""Though spearheaded by journalists, Sunshine Week is about the public's right to know what its government is doing, and why. Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger."

As a parent, I would not be comforted at all by the idea that the paper has supposedly put a triple password system in place; it shouldn't have the information at all. It helps the paper verify names and spellings? Isn't that a reporter's job? Why would I trust any entity with this information? Makes me wonder, too, about kids in the midst of custody battles, or with protection orders against an abusive parent--how are their rights protected?

Also strange is the decision of the Roanoke Times to obtain and then publish online a state police list of the addresses and names of people who have concealed-carry gun permits, as a way of celebrating the aforementioned Sunshine Week.

After a heated response, the paper removed the database from the Internet, with a rather mealy-mouthed explanation that the paper needed to verify some further information. "Out of a sense of caution and concern for the public we have decided to take the database off of our website.” And after someone posted the home address of the reporter online.

I gotta say, there are better ways of proving how valuable the right to know is and how important it is that the press have full access to government records than going after information about private citizens.

It's not that this information is all private,though certainly the kids information shouldn't be handed out. But if the Roanoke paper wants to make sure only legally qualified people are getting permits, then why not write the story that way? What is the value of publishing the list? And yes, I know anyone can go down to city hall and get such a list but then let them do it, and let them pay for it.

By the way, I'm opposed to easy gun ownership and would never have one in my house, so I'm not some gun-rights freak. But what is the point of publishing the database? To prove that you can? To "honor" Sunshine Week? What a silly thing to do.

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