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Sheriff rejects and publicizes records request, sparking social-media debate; editor withdraws request and resigns amidst reported threats

The Murphy-based Cherokee Scout, a weekly newspaper, recently drew outrage from some Cherokee County residents and lost its editor, all because of a public-records request. Amidst the uproar, the Scout rescinded its request, profusely apologized to readers for making it in the first place and accepted the editor’s resignation.

Local, state and national observers jumped into the fray. Some lauded the sheriff, who denied the Scout’s request for information on Cherokee County residents with a concealed carry gun permit. Others denounced both the alleged threats against the newspaper staff’s livelihood and safety and the newspaper itself for issuing an apology. And at the same time, proposed North Carolina legislation that would exempt gun-permit data from disclosure under that state’s public-records law advanced in Raleigh.

The Scout’s controversy over gun permits and public records began in the context of heated national divides about gun rights and gun control. It also followed closely on the heels of related debates prompted by news outlets that published gun-permit info, in North Carolina, New York and elsewhere. But like all local stories, it has its own unique twists.

Showdown over gun records in Cherokee County

The following chronology of day-to-day developments in Cherokee County’s gun-records debate, and the related deliberations in Raleigh, is drawn from public documents and media reports, and includes copies of many of the key records that are involved in the dispute. Thursday, CPP discussed the situation with Sheriff Keith Lovin and left a message for David Brown, the Scout’s publisher, but did not reach him. See below for documents related to the request, which include the records-request correspondence and the newspaper’s public statements, in chronological order.

Jan. 30: A group of four Republican state representatives — including Rep. Mike Hager, who represents Burke and Rutherford counties — introduced the “Gun Permits/Restaurants & Confidentiality” bill, House Bill 17, which would make state gun-permit information confidential. It was referred to the House Committee on Rules, Calendar, and Operations of the House.

Jan. 31: State Sen. Stan Bingham, a Republican representing Davidson and Montgomery counties, introduced the “Gun Permit Information/No Publication” bill, Senate Bill 28, which would likewise make gun-permit info confidential. It was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Feb. 4: At a meeting of the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners, County Manager Randy Wiggins shared a draft resolution with the commissioners. The resolution, “To Request Legislation to Exempt Certain Records of the Sheriffs’ Office from the Public Records Act,” had recently been adopted by the Gaston County Board of Commissioners, Wiggins said, and forwarded to the state’s other 99 counties.

The board agreed to adopt the resolution at its next meeting, according to the minutes of the meeting [PDF].

The commissioners also heard a “Local Second Amendment Preservation Resolution” that was recently passed and disseminated by the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners. All board members expressed support for this resolution, as well, and said they’d vote for it at the board’s next meeting. “Members of the public stood and applauded the decision,” the minutes noted.

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Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin, a Democrat, was among several people who spoke in favor of the resolutions during public comment. Lovin noted that, according to N.C. Department of Justice data, Cherokee has the highest per-capita rate of concealed-carry permits among the state’s 100 counties. (See an August 2012 Cherokee Scout report on those numbers here.)

Feb. 14: The state Senate Judiciary Committee debated Bingham’s bill. At a hearing in Raleigh, a representative of the N.C. Sheriffs Association backed the proposal, saying it would help prevent thefts, while the N.C. Press Association objected, saying it would bring unnecessary secrecy.

Feb. 18: Cherokee’s Board of Commissioners met and unanimously passed both gun-related resolutions. (Read them here in a PDF.)

Feb. 19: Robert Horne, the Cherokee Scout’s editor, filed a records request with Lovin, citing the main state public-records law. He asked for “a list of all Cherokee County residents who have applied for and/or received a concealed carry permit.”

The same day, Horne wrote in an editorial that he was “alarmed” by the county’s push to suppress such data. “Although we have no desire to publish (the list), I dropped off a request for this information,” Horne wrote. “If the government does not want anyone to have it, then something must be wrong.” The editorial is online here (subscription required to access full version).

Also the same day, Lovin denied Horne’s request for the information, citing a different state law — the one addressing sheriffs’ authority to permit gun purchases.

“There is nothing within the statue that makes the information contained therein a public record,” Lovin wrote. “The mere fact that it is information gathered by this office, in and of itself, is not enough,” he contended.

Feb. 20: Horne re-requested the information from Lovin, again citing the public-records law and this time asserting that he’d confirmed with an N.C. Press Association attorney that the requested info was rightly public. Horne acknowledged the proposed state legislation that could make the information confidential in the future, but noted, “Until the Legislature makes its decision and the governor signs off on it, these records are still open.

“We respectfully urge you to follow the state’s open records law and release this information, as neither of us wish to cost the taxpayers of Cherokee County money in any lawsuit,” he added. (Denials of public records by local and state officials can be challenged in court under state public-records law.)

Feb. 21: Lovin decided to post the records request and his initial response to Horne on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, along with this comment: “As the Sheriff of Cherokee County I feel that it is my responsibility to provide for the safety of all citizens of Cherokee County. My Office will continue to support the constitution and all amendments including the Second Amendment. I will continue to uphold my Oath of Office and serve the Citizens of Cherokee County.”

A firestorm of comments followed on the Facebook page, with most of them supporting Lovin’s decision and many harshly criticizing Horne for requesting the records. Meanwhile, the Scout was reportedly inundated with complaints from callers and online commenters, with some canceling subscriptions and some calling for a boycott of the paper and for it to be “run out of town,” as one online commenter suggested.

The same day, the Scout released a statement, in the name of Horne and the newspaper’s publisher, David Brown. “The readers have spoken, and the Cherokee Scout has heard you — loud and clear,” it began.

“We should have expected Sheriff Keith Lovin’s posting of his correspondence with Editor Robert Horne, because he knows he can’t win in a court of law but wants to win in the court of public opinion,” it added.

“However, despite the fact that the Scout likely would win a lawsuit, we have no intention of taking it to court,” the statement said, going on to note that Horne is “a U.S. Marine and a veteran of Operation Desert Storm who instructed members of the military on the firing range during his service — a Marine who actually has been threatened today by near-hysterical residents as a result of the sheriff’s actions.”

“We must be vigilant in maintaining the public’s right to know,” the statement continued. “We cannot give away our rights to access to public records. If we do, soon there will be no way to hold government officials accountable for their actions, which will lead to that dystopian future so many gun advocates dread.”

Still, the statement said, “Our readers have spoken, and we always listen to you. We are retracting our request, and the matter is closed.”

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Feb. 22: As the outpouring of complaints, most of them against the Scout, continued, the newspaper issued yet another statement, this one signed solely by Brown.

“The Cherokee Scout made a tremendous error in judgement this week, and thanks to our readers we learned a tough lesson,” it began. “As publisher of your local newspaper, I want to apologize to everyone we unintentionally upset with our request for a list of those who have or have applied for a concealed carry permit. We had no idea the reaction it would cause.

“Sheriff Keith Loven had the best interests of the people of Cherokee County at heart when he denied our request. The Scout would like to offer him an apology as well.”

Brown expressed hopes that the paper could “repair its reputation with readers,” and stressed both his and Horne’s deep roots in small, rural towns. “As for myself, I attended Murphy High School, I was married and baptized here, and three of my children are proud Bulldogs,” he wrote.

Feb. 26: The Scout announced that Horne had voluntarily decided to resign his post, and that he would switch to doing production work at the paper until his departure in late May.

Feb. 27: The Washington Post reported that Horne and other members of the Scout staff were “subjected to death threats” in recent days, prompting Horne to resign and decide to leave the region. The situation was now “about the safety of my family,” Horne told the newspaper. “I could not put my wife through this.”

Cherokee Scout Records Requests and Statements (PDF)
Cherokee Scout Records Requests and Statements (Text)

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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  1. It’s not just that Horne isn’t wanted in Cherokee County, it’s also that he IS wanted in more liberal counties like here in Buncombe, or San Francisco County. So giving both Horne and the Scout powerful incentives to relocate will be good for Cherokee County, good for his liberal destination, good for him in the long run, and good for the growing political diversity between american communities as documented in The Big Sort. So his leaving is win win all around and hopefully the whole nonlocally owned paper will follw him elsewhere.
    http://www.thebigsort.com/maps.php