HELENA – Associated Press reporters in Montana have been subject to online threats after the news spread that Attorney General Tim Fox had denied AP’s request for the names and other information about Montanans with concealed weapons permits.
On July 30, the AP filed a report with the Helena Police Department over the online threats, said Jim Clarke, AP chief of bureau for Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
Clarke declined to elaborate, saying: “The AP refrains from ever publicly discussing security matters affecting staff, and that goes for war zones such as Kabul as well as locations in the United States.”
Some online commentators have published the names and addresses of AP reporters in Helena, while another ran a Google Street view photo showing the house owned by one AP newsman here.
One online threat on a blog said, “If only someone could release the names of the AP reporters, where they work, their home addresses, names of family members, where their children go to school and what kind of car they drive with the license plate number.”
Another one said: “We need to track down and publish the names and addresses of AP executives, photographs of their children and the route they take to school.”
Another threat said: “Associate Propaganda – they will know when they see my muzzle flash.“
John Barnes, spokesman for Attorney General Fox, said Monday he wasn’t aware of the threats until informed by a reporter.
“If any employee of the AP or their families or any citizens or anyone has a threat, that person should contact their city or county law enforcement officers,” Barnes said.
What triggered the controversy was when an AP reporter made a formal request on March 18 for a digital copy of the concealed weapon permit holder database in Montana. AP sought the public information on each permit holder, not limited to first, middle and last name, street address, city, employer, age or date of birth, driver’s license and date of application.
This information on concealed weapon permit holders had been public in Montana until the 2013 Legislature passed a law making it confidential.
Over the years, Montana news organizations, including Lee Newspapers State Bureau, had periodically requested the names of the concealed weapon permit holders for use in news stories.
The AP request came shortly after a bill easily passed both houses of the 2013 Legislature by large margins to require that all information on a concealed weapon permit application be kept confidential in the future. Gov. Steve Bullock signed the bill into law March 28, and it takes effect Oct. 1.
In response, Barnes said he talked to two AP reporters by phone on April 22 to tell them their request was being denied and detailing the reason. Barnes said the Attorney General’s Office was putting together a memo elaborating on Fox’s reasoning.
On April 30, an online publication from Boston, known as MuckRock News, filed a similar request.
On July 17, Fox’s office sent a three-page memo to the AP and the Boston group detailing his reasons for denying the requests.
“After careful research and consideration of the requests, it is the opinion of this office that broad dissemination of CWP (concealed weapon permit) status and application information would unnecessarily invade the privacy of individuals in violation of the Montanan Constitution,” the memo from Fox’s office said.
The memo concluded: “In the opinion of the attorney general, the demands of individual privacy clearly outweigh the merits of public disclosure under these circumstances. After thoughtful consideration, requests for such information must be denied.”
It said the office would continue to provide county-by-county statistics, upon request, on the number of permit holders.
The same day that the memo was released, Barnes said the office sent copies by email to the 56 county attorneys and then by mail to the 56 sheriffs, although their sheriffs’ association later distributed it to members by email.
AP never reported on the memo from Fox’s office.
News of the AP request and Fox’s denial first broke July 24 on the website for Aaron Flint, a conservative Billings commentator and broadcaster with Northern Broadcasting System, who has a daily statewide radio show. Flint said he had received a copy of Fox’s memo from a source outside of the Attorney General’s Office and posted it on his website.
A day later, Media Trackers, a conservative Montana website that covers Montana politics and the media, picked up the story.
Montana Television Network and Montana Public Radio followed with stories about Fox denying the request. They quoted AP Bureau Chief Clarke saying the news organization generally doesn’t comment on its ongoing reporting efforts.
On Friday, in a statement to Lee Newspapers, Clark elaborated on why AP sought the information:
“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....
“We have never had any interest in publishing the Montana database in its entirety.”