By asking the Freedom of Information Commission for the list of people who signed up for New Haven’s controversial municipal ID card program, Journal Inquirer managing editor Chris Powell is testing the limits of responsible journalism.
At this point, it is unclear what Powell plans to do with the information he may obtain, but his comment that he’s seeking the information because the program encourages illegal immigration gives some hint as to his political agenda. There is surely some journalistic merit to seeking and using the data in reporting. For example, if a reporter reviews the list and finds a large number of people with outstanding arrest warrants, that would be worth a story. But while Powell says he personally won’t go knocking on doors to track down people on the list, he cannot control the actions of his readers, some of whom probably feel more passionately than he about the problem of illegal immigrants in New Haven, judging, at the very least, from the amount of vitriolic hate mail the News received because we support the ID card program. It’s not hard to imagine that a Connecticut version of the infamous Minutemen might take the opportunity to target and harass Hispanic names on the list of ID cardholders.
Powell must know this. He told a News reporter that he’s aware the program may be canceled if the information is made public, precisely because the privacy of those who seek the assistance of the ID card is of paramount importance.
At issue is the balance of two obligations of the press: to keep the government as transparent and honest as possible, and not to harass or encourage the harassment of individuals. FOIA is meant to be a tool for journalists to watch over the government’s actions and call attention to when they transgress the law, such as when elected officials use their office time or e-mail accounts to conduct campaign activities, or, as Yale Law School is currently doing in the case of the dubious summer raids in Fair Haven, to ascertain whether the government illegally targeted Hispanic residents for raids to find illegal immigrants.
Powell, however, is perverting the legitimate newsgathering use of FOIA by using it as a bludgeon to force the government to change a policy he personally finds displeasing. It’s no secret that the purpose of the municipal ID card program is to assist illegal immigrants. Many disagree with this goal, and they make a valid point, but there are ways of expressing this disagreement that don’t endanger members of the New Haven community.
In misusing FOIA to serve his own policy interests, Powell is setting a dangerous precedent. He needs to keep in mind, first and foremost, his responsibility to his community as a journalist, and he should pursue his lobbying goals openly, not under the guise of reporting.