Ar­kan­sas Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act marks 50 years

Texarkana Gazette - - OPINION - Brenda Blagg GUEST COLUM­NIST Brenda Blagg is a free­lance colum­nist. She is a found­ing mem­ber of the Ar­kan­sas FOI Coali­tion. E-mail com­ments or ques­tions to bren­da­jblagg@gmail.com.

This week marks the 50th an­niver­sary of the Ar­kan­sas Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act.

The law isn’t quite what it was when first en­acted and signed by Gov. Winthrop Rock­e­feller in 1967, but it still stands as one of the best “sun­shine” laws in the coun­try.

And it still opens most meet­ings and records of gov­ern­ment to the peo­ple those gov­ern­ments serve here in Ar­kan­sas. At least, it does for now.

As hap­pens every two years, the law is un­der at­tack in the Leg­is­la­ture.

Fifty years since the FOI Act be­came law, per­haps too many peo­ple take it for granted.

Be­fore the law, cit­i­zens weren’t guar­an­teed they could even ob­serve a meet­ing of a city coun­cil or a school board or get ac­cess to records kept by any gov­ern­ment, even though the gov­ern­ments ex­ist to serve their cit­i­zens.

Their ac­ces­si­bil­ity changed with the cur­rent law’s pas­sage in 1967.

Oh, there had been an­other, older law in place in Ar­kan­sas that pur­ported to open up gov­ern­ment, but it was tooth­less. It al­lowed gov­ern­ing boards to shut down cit­i­zen ac­cess at will.

Their meet­ings and records were de­clared to be open— un­less they chose not to open them. Gen­er­ally, they chose not to open them.

That law, one of many ush­ered in na­tion­wide after World War II, proved to be lit­tle bet­ter than no law at all. Ar­kan­sas and other states nev­er­the­less owe a debt to the WWII vet­er­ans who came home from that war in­tent on hav­ing a say in their gov­ern­ments.

After fight­ing and see­ing friends die to de­fend their free­doms, they de­manded a voice in state and lo­cal af­fairs.

They’re the ones who cracked open the doors of gov­ern­ment, which had too of­ten been con­ducted in se­cret. They pushed for what be­came known as “sun­shine” laws, laws de­signed to let the pub­lic see the con­duct of pub­lic busi­ness.

It took a while for some of these strong ad­vo­cates to get into pub­lic of­fice and in place to al­ter the laws to re­ally open up gov­ern­ment to the peo­ple be­ing gov­erned.

It hap­pened in Ar­kan­sas in

1967.

Three in­di­vid­u­als, two of them Demo­cratic leg­is­la­tors and the third the state’s Repub­li­can gov­er­nor, get most of the po­lit­i­cal credit for pas­sage of the law.

Gov. Rock­e­feller con­sid­ered the law his most en­dur­ing legacy. His pas­sion for open gov­ern­ment arose from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.

The first Repub­li­can elected to the gov­er­nor’s of­fice since Re­con­struc­tion had learned first­hand dur­ing his cam­paign how un­wel­com­ing the Demo­crat­i­cally con­trolled court­houses and city halls could be in Ar­kan­sas.

He and his sup­port­ers were re­port­edly re­fused ac­cess to pub­lic in­for­ma­tion like vot­ing records and other data. So he was well con­di­tioned to sup­port a stronger free­dom of in­for­ma­tion law when it was pre­sented to him.

The bill’s lead spon­sors were Sen. Ben Allen, a Lit­tle Rock lawyer, and Rep. Leon Hol­sted, a North Lit­tle Rock drug­gist. They ac­com­plished a near im­pos­si­ble feat. After much ne­go­ti­a­tion and grand­fa­ther­ing in nu­mer­ous ex­emp­tions to the law, they passed the bill with­out a sin­gle dis­sent­ing vote.

Both re­mained strong ad­vo­cates for open gov­ern­ment through­out their leg­isla­tive ser­vice, as have many other law­mak­ers over the 50 years since.

Much of the im­pe­tus for the 1967 law’s pas­sage came from jour­nal­ists, led by Robert Mc­Cord, then ed­i­tor of the North Lit­tle Rock Times and pres­i­dent of the Ar­kan­sas chap­ter of the So­ci­ety of Pro­fes­sional Jour­nal­ists, then known as Sigma Delta Chi.

Mc­Cord is widely rec­og­nized as the “fa­ther” of the Ar­kan­sas FOI Act, al­though he al­ways em­pha­sized the role other jour­nal­ists played, too. Jour­nal­ists not only were key ad­vo­cates for the 1967 law but also helped draft the lan­guage of it.

To this day, jour­nal­ists are vo­cal sup­port­ers. The Ar­kan­sas Press As­so­ci­a­tion and the Ar­kan­sas FOI Coali­tion, made up largely of jour­nal­ists, con­tinue the ad­vo­cacy.

They are en­gaged now in fight­ing more pro­posed ex­emp­tions to the law in an era when such at­tempts to weaken it come fre­quently.

Also crit­i­cal to the sta­bil­ity of the law has been the role of the courts, specif­i­cally the Ar­kan­sas Supreme Court.

The law got a quick le­gal test soon after its pas­sage. Mc­Cord and a re­porter for his news­pa­per sued after the North Lit­tle Rock mayor and city coun­cil mem­bers met pri­vately with the city’s at­tor­ney.

Then as now, the law did not ex­empt such meet­ings from the FOI law.

Mc­Cord pre­vailed. In a 1968 opin­ion, writ­ten by As­so­ciate Jus­tice Ge­orge Rose Smith, the court set the prece­dent that suc­ces­sor courts have fol­lowed ever since to up­hold the law.

“It is vi­tal in a demo­cratic so­ci­ety that pub­lic busi­ness be per­formed in an open and pub­lic man­ner,” wrote Smith. “We have no hes­i­ta­tion in as­sert­ing our con­vic­tion that the Free­dom of in­for­ma­tion Act was passed wholly in the pub­lic in­ter­est and is to be lib­er­ally in­ter­preted to the end that its praise­wor­thy pur­poses may be achieved.”

Well said. May that be­lief— and the Ar­kan­sas FOI Act— en­dure.

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