Sometimes, we make the news

We wound up being in the news instead of reporting it last week when it was announced that the Mail Tribune had gone to court to get Sheriff Mike Winters to release a public record — the list of concealed weapons permit holders in Jackson County. It's not a place we find particularly comfortable, but it is a place we are willing to go when we think the public's right to an open government is threatened.

Oregon has a long record of openness and very specific laws on the requirements for keeping public records and public meetings open to the public. There are exemptions to those requirements, to be sure, exemptions that include everything from unfair labor practices complaints to information about archaeological sites.

There are exemptions for student records, documents relating to the transportation of radioactive material, public utility customer information, individuals' library records, medical records related to Oregon Health Sciences University and on and on.

But nowhere is there an exemption listed for concealed weapons permits.

The issue arose when we asked the sheriff to confirm whether South Medford High School teacher Shirley Katz had a permit. He denied our request and later denied our request for the entire list.

We do not intend to publish the names of permit holders, but do hope to discover how many teachers hold similar permits. But that story has taken a back seat in this case to the importance of keeping public records public.

Some people have told us they don't believe the permits should be public record. We think there is a good argument to be made for why the records should remain public, but in truth what we think, what other people think and what Sheriff Winters thinks is beside the point. No individual, elected or otherwise, and no organization, media or otherwise, determines what is a public record. That's up to the law and up to the Legislature.

If Sheriff Winters and those who agree with him think concealed weapons permits should not be public record, they should try to get the law changed. But no one, and certainly no law enforcement officer, should choose to enforce only the parts of the law that he agrees with.

If public officials are allowed to withdraw from the public record the portions that they would like to keep secret, there would be precious little left for the public to see. Every time a public record is removed from view, government is granted a little more power while the governed lose a little more.

Some people want to turn this into a debate about gun rights. That has nothing to do with it and we do not dispute the rights of people to own guns or to have concealed weapons permits. That is the law of the land.

But it is also the law of the land that public records belong to the public and not to public officials. It is up to the public and, yes, sometimes the media, to ensure that law is upheld.

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