Arkansas, other states chip away at pub­lic’s right to in­for­ma­tion

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - AN­DREW DEMILLO AND RYAN J. FO­LEY

LIT­TLE ROCK — Arkansas law­mak­ers marked the 50-year an­niver­sary of the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act in Fe­bru­ary with a res­o­lu­tion call­ing it “a shin­ing ex­am­ple of open gov­ern­ment” that had en­sured ac­cess to vi­tal pub­lic records for gen­er­a­tions.

They spent the fol­low­ing weeks de­bat­ing and, in many cases ap­prov­ing, new ex­emp­tions to the law in what crit­ics called an un­prece­dented at­tack on the pub­lic’s right to know.

When they were fin­ished, uni­ver­si­ties could keep se­cret all in­for­ma­tion re­lated to their po­lice forces, in­clud­ing their size and the names and salaries of of­fi­cers. Pub­lic schools could shield a host of facts re­lated to se­cu­rity, in­clud­ing the iden­ti­ties of teach­ers car­ry­ing con­cealed weapons and emer­gency re­sponse plans. And state Capi­tol po­lice could with­hold any­thing they be­lieved could be detri­men­tal to pub­lic safety if made pub­lic.

The new laws left grand­mother An­nie Bryant wor­ried that she and other par­ents could now be kept in the dark about how schools pro­tect kids.

“I don’t want to be overly ag­gres­sive to the point that we block out av­enues and end up rob­bing par­ents, rob­bing stu­dents of in­for­ma­tion about their safety,” said Bryant, who lives in Pine Bluff

and spoke out against the school se­cu­rity se­crecy dur­ing a leg­isla­tive hear­ing.

Law­mak­ers across the coun­try in­tro­duced and de­bated dozens of bills dur­ing this year’s leg­isla­tive ses­sions that would close or limit pub­lic ac­cess to a wide range of gov­ern­ment records and meet­ings, ac­cord­ing to a re­view by The As­so­ci­ated Press and nu­mer­ous state press as­so­ci­a­tions.

Most of those pro­pos­als did not be­come law, but free­dom of in­for­ma­tion ad­vo­cates in some states said they were struck by the num­ber of bills they be­lieved would harm the pub­lic in­ter­est, and they are brac­ing for more fights next year.

Law­mak­ers sup­port­ing the lim­its said other con­cerns such as se­cu­rity, pri­vacy and busi­ness in­ter­ests can out­weigh the pub­lic’s right to in­for­ma­tion in spe­cific cases.

They said they pro­posed the changes after hear­ing com­plaints about in­for­ma­tion sought by spe­cific re­questers and gen­eral con­cerns about the cost and time of ful­fill­ing the re­quests. Crit­i­cism of jour­nal­ists seek­ing the records or cit­i­zens fil­ing re­peat re­quests some­times came up in de­bate.

In Arkansas, a re­quest for seem­ingly in­nocu­ous in­for­ma­tion be­came the cat­a­lyst for the sweep­ing bill passed ear­lier this year that ex­empts all “records or other in­for­ma­tion” held by uni­ver­si­ties that, if re­leased, could po­ten­tially harm pub­lic safety.

A pho­tog­ra­pher filed a re­quest in 2015 for the names of of­fi­cers as­signed to work a se­cu­rity de­tail for the up­com­ing Mis­sis­sippi State-Arkansas foot­ball game. The woman, who was shoot­ing the game for AP, wanted to learn whether she might cross paths with an of­fi­cer she had ac­cused of rape.

Univer­sity of Arkansas of­fi­cials were un­aware of the mo­tive be­hind the re­quest and were fo­cused on pre­vent­ing a ter­ror­ist at­tack at the sta­dium. The new law they backed specif­i­cally shields in­for­ma­tion re­lated to the num­ber of se­cu­rity per­son­nel on cam­puses, any per­sonal in­for­ma­tion about them, and all of their emer­gency plans, pro­ce­dures and stud­ies.

The bill also in­cluded a sim­i­lar ex­emp­tion for pub­lic schools. The spon­sor, Repub­li­can Sen. Gary Stub­ble­field, said he pushed for that lan­guage after a district armed some of its teach­ers and staff as vol­un­teer se­cu­rity guards, say­ing he wanted to keep their iden­ti­ties se­cret for safety rea­sons.

“I’m not against FOI. I be­lieve strongly in trans­parency, I re­ally do, but com­mon sense just tells you there are some things that you can­not re­lease es­pe­cially in the day in which we live,” Stub­ble­field said. “Be­cause there are ac­tu­ally people out there who are just looking for some­thing, an edge where they can get in and do some dam­age. And I just don’t think we ought to give it to them.”

Sup­port­ers of the ex­emp­tion for the Arkansas Capi­tol Po­lice said it was needed be­cause the news media had writ­ten in 1998 about se­cret plans to al­low for­mer Gov. Mike Huck­abee to es­cape his of­fice by climb­ing a lad­der into an aban­doned el­e­va­tor shaft.

The dis­clo­sure caused the state to de­lay and mod­ify the es­cape route, which was com­pleted in 2001 and later shown to re­porters by the gov­er­nor’s staff. The new law gives the agency wide au­thor­ity to keep se­cret any records re­lated to se­cu­rity at the Capi­tol and gov­er­nor’s man­sion.

By the end of the ses­sion, some law­mak­ers be­lieved the pro­posed changes were go­ing too far.

The Leg­is­la­ture voted to cre­ate a new task force to study the ex­emp­tions, in­clud­ing whether any should be deleted or added. The House voted 33-32 to block leg­is­la­tion that would al­low the gov­ern­ment to de­clare a pub­lic records re­quest “un­duly bur­den­some” and give 15 busi­ness days to com­ply in­stead com­ply­ing on re­quest or al­low­ing three days for records in use or stor­age.

A mea­sure that would have al­lowed uni­ver­si­ties to keep se­cret wide cat­e­gories of records re­lated to po­ten­tial le­gal ac­tion failed.

Tom Larimer, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Arkansas Press As­so­ci­a­tion, said law­mak­ers did more dam­age to free­dom of in­for­ma­tion than in any other ses­sion since 2004.

“We’ve al­ways had a cer­tain num­ber of leg­is­la­tors who have had no use for the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act and have no se­ri­ous con­cerns about trans­parency in gov­ern­ment,” he said. “But it just seemed like there were more of them this time, and they were more will­ing to side with those who are per­pet­u­ally on the side of weak­en­ing the FOI.”

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