Monday, August 5, 2013

AP reporters receive threats after Montana attorney general denies records request

Freedom of the press is fundamental to a functioning Democracy.

One of the pillars of a free press is the public’s Right to Know.

Both were threatened last week after Attorney General Tim Fox made a public display of denying an open records request by Associated Press reporter Matt Gouras.

In the days following Fox’s announcement that he would not fulfill the AP’s request for information on concealed carry permit holders in Montana, Gouras and other Montana AP reporters began receiving threats online.

Here are just of the few of the most sinister threats:




In another online forum anonymous commenters posted Gouras’ home address and even a Google Street View photo of Gouras’ house.

The Associated Press declined to comment on the threats.

Fox’s spokesman, John Barnes, said in a statement that the Attorney General’s Office was not aware of any threats made against AP reporters or their families.

“If employees of the Associated Press – or any citizens – have received threats, they should contact their city police department or county sheriff office,” Barnes said via email. “The Montana Department of Justice can assist in investigations when requested by local authorities.”

This all stemmed from Gouras’ March 18  request for public information on current concealed carry permit holders, including, but not limited to, last name, first name, middle name, street address, city,  employer, age or date of birth, driver’s license number, date of application.

Earlier this year the Montana Legislature passed a law, which Gov. Steve Bullock signed, barring the state from reveal information on concealed weapons permit holders to the press or the public. The law is set to take effect on Oct. 1. The AP made the request before the law had even passed before it was signed into law.

In a July 17 memo Fox denied Gouras’ request for the information citing the Montana Constitution’s privacy provisions. Rather than send Gouras notice denying the request and move on as is customary, Fox chose to grandstand and go on a media blitz, talking about his decision on’s Cam & Co. radio show, as well as making appearances on local television and radio news stations across the state.

(Update 8/5/2013 5:10 p.m.) According to Fox spokesman John Barnes, the Attorney General’s Office sent the July 17 memo only to Associated Press reporters Matt Gouras and Matt Volz as well as to county attorneys and Montana sheriffs. Barnes said he doesn’t know how other media outlets found out about the memo but that there was no effort on the attorney general’s behalf to publicize the decision. Barnes said after the news got out other media outlets requested Gouras’ original request.

Fox called the AP’s request “pretty unprecedented,” a “bad idea” and said:

“Quite frankly I can’t think of a reason where it would be legitimate or reasonable to publish this amount of information or to release it to any individual.”

To the average person not regularly involved in news gathering and public information requests, Gouras’ request might seem intrusive. In actuality, the press requests this kind of information all the time. Good reporters regularly request all kinds of documents, information and data from Government agencies. We usually ask for as much detail as we can get and then work back from there. Sometimes privacy laws dictate what information we can and can’t have, in which case we work out those details with the agency. We make a habit of doing this on the public’s behalf. It’s how we find patterns in mounds of data. It’s how we hold government accountable.

The Associated Press has a long history of this kind of reporting. It was not too long ago Gouras uncovered the fact that hundreds of people barred from having guns because they are felons on parole or probation were still able to get hunting licenses in Montana with no questions asked.

Gouras didn’t publish the names of everyone who had a hunting license. He didn’t reveal a list of all the felons and parolees in the state. He cross referenced two sets of data and developed a good story from what he found.

The reaction from the pro-gun  world was swift and harsh as the headlines on conservative blogs and traditional media outlets alike questioned not Fox’s denial of a public records request, but the AP’s motivations in making it in the first place.

The message from the online pro-gun forums was clear: the public doesn’t have a right to know who holds a concealed carry permit. Some extremists made that point even sharper by warning other journalists that making such an request could be a mortal sin.

Such threats and intimidation tactics toward journalists should not be tolerated anywhere, particularly in a country whose founding document enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The biggest critique against the AP’s request for the information seems to be the fact that they wouldn’t comment on what they intended to do with it.

The beautiful thing about the public’s Right to Know is that it’s our Right to Know. We don’t have to tell the government why we want the information or what we plan to do with it. It’s the government’s job to turn it over and it’s the journalist’s job to deal with the data and information in a responsible manner.

People will point to the incident last December when a New York paper published the names and addresses of local gun owners.

You could argue that was a poor decision on their part. I think most journalists would argue right alongside you.

But one newspaper’s poor decision does not mean every journalist who requests information will disseminate it in such an irresponsible manner.

In Montana there is a history of great news reporting stemming from similar requests.

In 2008 then-Lee Newspapers state bureau reporter Jennifer McKee wrote a story on how nine sitting lawmakers had permits to carry concealed weapons.

In 2000 the Missoulian published a story on how the number of concealed weapons permits was climbing.

In 1994 Lee Newspapers capitol bureau reporter  David Fenner did a series of stories on concealed weapons in the state. The top story in the January 23, 1994 edition of the Billings Gazette featured a four-part report on gun-bearing Montanans, including an analysis of the concealed carry permit database.

One of Fenner’s stories explored the rise in permit holders.


Another featured interviews with concealed weapons permit holders, including Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, former State Rep. Jody Bird, D-Superior and former Gov. Marc Racicot’s cousin. Presumably


A third story explored how a small community near the Hi-Line saw a spike in concealed weapons permit applications after a security manager at a local mine warned of the dangers of “environmental extremists.”


A fourth article debated the concealed weapons law’s effectiveness in deterring violent crime:


Update (8/5/2013 3:50 p.m.): Just last Thursday in the Outdoors section, the Tribune did a story on women carrying concealed weapons that would not have been possible without substantiating the information with the government. It gave insight into an important story in a responsible way.

So yes, there are “legitimate” and “reasonable” reasons for requesting this kind of information.

Associated Press Bureau Chief Jim Clarke gave me this statement about Gouras’ request and the AP’s intentions for the data Fox refused to turn over:

“After the Montana Legislature voted to remove from the public record information on whom the government had granted permits to carry concealed weapons, effective Oct. 1, The Associated Press requested a database of these files that had long been accessible to the public.

AP acted under freedom of information law, which we do routinely in seeking records at the federal, state and local level as part of our newsgathering process and our long-standing mission to assure transparency and accountability in government.  Montana’s Constitution contains such a Right to Know clause, which says: “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents.”

We have never had any interest in publishing the Montana database in its entirety.”

It is unclear at this point if the Associated Press or other news outlets plan to sue in court for access to the records.


Patrick said...

This is Montana -- guns and privacy are winning issues here. The more press you give Fox on this issue, the better he looks. Keep at it.

Anonymous said...

First off, your moderation of a person's Free Speech is a violation of their 1st Amendment Right. Whether or not you agree or disagree with their comments and deleting those comments amounts to censorship, the very same argument you present as desiring to have the information. YOU publish YOUR OPINIONS based on the information you have. You call it a news story. Seldom are news stories written without any slant, without any bias, without any twist to put forth YOUR OPINIONS. People respond to forums and make comments based on what THEY FEEL. It is their 1st Amendment Right to do so, just as YOU wave that right to publish the stories YOU do.

2ndly, People in THIS COUNTRY have a 4th Amendment Right to Privacy, Specifically, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated," therefore, WHEN you gather this data, people ARE NOT secure in their houses when you have news sources MAPPING LOCATIONS, NOT SECURE in their papers as THOSE PERMITS INVOLVE A CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECK, NOT SECURE in their effects when Reporters pry into WHAT THEY OWN. Your Request under the Freedom of Information Act when it comes to People possessing a Concealed Carry Permit DOES AMOUNT TO A UNWARRANTED SEARCH. The reason being, at least in my opinion, is people who have concealed carry permits WOULD NOT HAVE such a permit if they DID NOT OWN A FIREARM, specifically, a pistol which can be concealed.

YOUR CONTENTION that you would NOT publish private information DOES NOT mean that you would not. YOU are in the business of selling news papers. It is PURE HYPOCRICY to say that you would not use or misuse such information to further your bottom line, your PROFITS, or use those news stories to stir debate to fill YOUR DESIRES to gain notoriety and benefit from it chasing Pulitzers or other self serving ends.

I, personally, believe the press are like politicians. You publish whatever Opinion on whatever "Story" you have. Your Published Opinion then shapes attitudes and beliefs based on YOUR SLANT. THIS is called propaganda. Governments engage in this kind of thing all the time to sway public sentiment. In a sense, YOU are the biggest purveyor of such propaganda. Either the press DOES NOT CARE - again for the sake of making money, or ARE TOO NIAVE to understand the basic fact that YOU are a pawn in the Government's Scheme. Either way, the press HAS NO RIGHT to a LAW ABIDING CITIZEN's information unless that citizen brings it to you.

Now, as much as you have strenuously tried to make yourselves out to be the "victims" in some self-deluded "woe is me, people are mad at us" mentality, YOU need to understand PEOPLE ARE TIRED of others POKING THIER NOSE into THIER BUSINESS. I am sure you won't be posting this comment, but at least you will have had the opportunity of reading MY OPINION.

Anonymous said...

obviously threats are unacceptable...what I would say is how did you feel when it was made public that the government was tapping AP phone lines? Technically, the government does this sort of thing all the time, on our behalf and without our knowledge. yet it smells fishy. The hunter/felon analogy if bogus, these are people who committed a crime and have lost their civil rights. Also statistical analysis of concealed carriers is possible without knowing names and other private personal information. The fact that this request wasn't put forth until it became known that Fox was trying to make it private smacks of the AP playing politics. Also, why no coverage in the GF Tribune? made the TV news here, which I don't see as being in the same journalistic league as the Trib, but yet no mention at all until the issue of threats surfaced. I am not a concealed carrier, but I firmly believe in the right to privacy for people that are following the law and feel, either because of their profession, or because of a threat made against them personally, that they need a concealed carry permit. Again, I feel this smacks of politics on the part of the AP and the Tribune.

MrCachet said...

Blatant lies. The legislature did NOT vote to REMOVE anything. The data base of CCW holders remains where it has always been. Were you to have checked, the public "right to know" was REJECTED in both the Senate and the House, because we as citizens have a "right to privacy". Telling half truths and implying "threats" were made is disingenuous. You already knew that your request would be denied, yet you want to make hay while the sun is still shining. Hurray for AG Fox. I hope he uses this little bit of journalistic voyeurism the next election cycle.

Anonymous said...

I thought the that good journalists were supposed to protect "the People" from the Government, not the other way around.

Post a Comment

All comments are moderated. If you are an anonymous user who attempts to troll this forum with the intention of inciting divisive, nonconstructive commentary, I reserve the right to delete your comment.