On Tuesday, the Louisiana Senate passed a bill that would imprison and fine journalists who intentionally publish information about the state's concealed-carry handgun permit holders. Reporters who violate the law would face penalties of up to $10,000, six months in jail, or both; public safety officials and police officers who leak permit information to the press would face penalties of up to $500, six months in jail, or both. Journalists in Louisiana say the bill is clearly unconstitutional, but that won't stop it from becoming law if it is approved by a conference committee and sent to Gov. Bobby Jindal's desk for his signature.*
Pamela Mitchell, executive director of the Louisiana Press Association, the state's official newspaper trade organization, says the bill is a clear example of prior restraint—the preemptive censorship of free speech. "That's patently unconstitutional," she says—"think Pentagon Papers," referring to the landmark case New York Times Co. v. United States.
"It's one of those tricky areas, because in some ways [the bill] works as prior restraint, but in others, if they make it a law that penalizes you for publishing [the information], you're being penalized after the fact," says Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "So it's not actually keeping you from publishing it." But, he adds, the state "would have to show a compelling interest" to apply a content-based restriction on free speech, and that test "is rarely met."
The Louisiana law is more extreme than other bills that aim to protect the privacy of concealed-carry permit holders. The National Rifle Association and pro-gun lawmakers around the country have pushed hard for state laws forbidding the release of concealed-carry information since last December, when the Lower Hudson Journal News, a local New York paper, published interactive Google maps that pinpointed handgun permit holders' names and addresses in two New York counties. But Louisiana already had a law banning the state from releasing concealed-carry information, so state Rep. Jeff Thompson decided his proposal needed to go even further by banning reporters from publishing the data.