‘Does the Second Amendment trump the First?’

So asks a WTOV (Ohio & West Virginia) story:

Does the Second Amendment trump the First?

It’s a question being looked at here in the Ohio Valley after a local newspaper is denied a Freedom of Information request.

The request was made by a reporter for a Wheeling newspaper requesting the names of all the people with a concealed-carry permit.

Ohio County Sheriff Pat Butler says it violates the privacy and safety of many residents. “First of all, I think it’s an invasion of privacy, and I think it’s a dangerous precedent to set to let people all over the Ohio Valley know who has permits and who doesn’t,” Butler said….

Stories about whether one constitutional right “trump[s]” another usually turn on unduly loose understandings of what constitutes a right. This is particularly so in this situation.

There is no First Amendment right to access government records. There’s a First Amendment right to speak about what you’ve found in a record that was released to you, but not a First Amendment right to access the record in the first place. (Courts have recognized one significant exception this principle — a First Amendment right of access to documents filed in criminal prosecutions or civil lawsuits. But that exception is limited, and not applicable to ordinary government records.)

Of course, there are broad rights to access many government records secured under state and federal statutes, usually called Freedom of Information Acts or Public Records Acts. But those statutes tend to have statutory exemptions for private information about particular people. Whether or not the sheriff should release the records turns not on the First Amendment, but on the relevant West Virginia statute and its privacy exception.

Now, if the West Virginia statute does mandate release of such records, notwithstanding the privacy exception, one could craft a constitutional argument that the Second Amendment right to own guns includes a right to own guns free of public disclosure of such gun ownership. But I’m not sure that courts would accept this argument; see pp. 1545-49 of my “Implementing the Right to Keep and Bear Arms” article for some general thoughts related to this point (though they focus more on disclosure to the government, rather than redisclosure by the government). One could also in theory also craft a constitutional right to informational privacy argument barring such public disclosure; but that too is unclear — whether there is such a right, and what its scope might be, is unsettled.

Still, even if courts do accept such an argument, and say that the Second Amendment or the Due Process Clause right to privacy bars disclosure of gun records even when a state statute mandates its release, that wouldn’t involve the Second Amendment trumping the First Amendment. It would involve the Second Amendment (or the Due Process Clause) trumping a state statute that isn’t mandated by the First Amendment.

And beyond that, courts first have to decide whether or not the state statute even mandates the disclosure of such records, or whether the privacy exception exempts such records from disclosure. And if there is such an exemption, nothing is trumping anything else — it’s just that the state statute, by its own terms, wouldn’t be applicable to these records.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Sasha Volokh · March 25