Media should not have quoted from psychologist's letter – OpEd

On March 13, the Iowa City Press-Citizen published a front-page story that quoted from a psychologist’s letter about a patient seeking a gun permit. That patient was subsequently involved in a standoff with police in which  he shot and injured three North Liberty police officers, and he was shot and killed by police.

In response to the publication of excerpts from the psychologist’s letter, provided by the sheriff’s office, two local psychologists wrote an OpEd criticizing the media. It reads, in part:

Your editorial decision to highlight and publish a letter written by a local psychologist in support of the deceased shooter’s application for a gun permit in 2010 is an example of salacious journalism that served to confuse your readers rather than inform and educate them.


It is difficult enough for people to seek mental health treatment due to barriers such as access to care and the risk of social stigma. Freedom of information laws notwithstanding, publishing any part of a patient’s mental health record reinforces existing fears that asking for help is not worth the risk. After all, how many of us would trust a professional with sensitive and private information if we believed it might show up on the front page of the local paper?

Read the full OpEd here.

I realize that gun permits are a matter of increasing public concern and scrutiny, but I also agree with the psychologists that publishing a psychologist’s report on a patient is problematic and may dissuade people from seeking help.  In this case,  because the patient presumably asked the psychologist to prepare the report, he knew the contents would be shared with at least some others. That said, I doubt if he ever expected it would be published for the general public in its entirety, and I wonder how the paper’s editorial decision may impact others who are considering seeking mental health treatment but who want to be able to get a gun permit.

 via Ken Pope’s mail list

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2 comments to “Media should not have quoted from psychologist's letter – OpEd”

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  1. Anonymous - March 18, 2013

    The story seems to indicate that the letter was provided by the police to the newspapers. Given the man’s actions and the newsworthiness of the role of psychology in his (possibly) using that letter in obtaining a firearm, it’s hard for me to argue that the newspapers shouldn’t have published pieces of it. This is the year of “free speech” v. privacy it seems…

    • Anonymous - March 18, 2013

      I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that what anyone did was illegal. I think one could ask whether such letters provided as part of background checks should be exempt from disclosure under open records law. Most of us – myself included – would probably say they shouldn’t be exempt, but then we need to deal with the impact of such disclosures on people seeking therapy. Will public disclosure result in more gun violence because someone decided not to risk public disclosure? I don’t know…

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