An important freedom

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Last week in this space, we published a guest column written by Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association.

The column originally was published as part of the APA’s weekly electronic newsletter. I liked it so much, and it was so well-written, that I called Tom and asked for his permission to publish it in the Carroll County News. He graciously agreed, and I hope our readers found it as informative and engaging as I did.

As Tom wrote, Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act will mark its 50th anniversary on Tuesday. There are many facets to the FOIA, but it starts with a basic premise: The public’s business ought to be conducted in public. That seems as if it should be a given, but there are folks who would rather some public business be conducted behind closed doors. That’s not how democracy works, and the FOIA helps to ensure that our democracy functions properly.

Of course, complying with the FOIA can sometimes be a bit of a hassle. Some documents that constitute public records can comprise hundreds of pages — the county budget, for instance — and sometimes journalists run into public employees and officials who resent that hassle. However, the law is clear about the public’s access to information.

To be clear, the FOIA provides that public information is accessible to everyone, but as a practical matter, the law is especially helpful to journalists who want to keep the public informed about its business. After all, that is a journalist’s primary function — to act as a representative of and an advocate for the public. Not everyone can make it to a city council meeting on a Monday night or a budget committee meeting on a Thursday afternoon. But a journalist’s job is to be at those meetings, to report what happened at those meetings in an accurate, objective manner, and to ask the questions that the public would like answered. It’s because of the FOIA, because those meetings are conducted in public, that we can do that.

Likewise, it’s because of the FOIA that a vast array of documents are considered public records. Everything from court papers to public schools’ salary schedules, to contracts with private vendors. Even the mayor’s email (with some specific exemptions) is considered a public record.

Some folks might consider that an invasion of privacy, but the truth is that public institutions — our government — should have no expectation of privacy. No secrets. Any attack on the FOIA is an attack on the public’s right to know what its government is doing. If we ever lose that right, more will surely soon follow.

It is only fair that I note here that the vast majority of our elected officials and government employees are more than happy to comply with the FOIA. In almost 30 years as a professional journalist, I’ve had a Freedom of Information request denied on fewer than 10 occasions. That’s not to say that everyone has willingly complied with the law without making it overly cumbersome. I once uncovered the fact that a university had loaned a private construction company a significant amount of public money in a (failed) effort to help the company avoid bankruptcy. Ultimately, the loan was never repaid. My belief then — as it is now — is that the arrangement constituted a felony. although it was never prosecuted as such. The university tried to avoid complying wih my FOIA request by deluging me with documents that were totally unrelated to the issue at hand, then charging me an exorbitant copying fee (illegal under the FOIA). My response was to clarify my request so that I only asked to “view and inspect” the documents. Ultimately, I was able to inform the public about what its university was attempting to do in secret with public money.

That case, however, was the exception. Most public servants act in good faith and have no real motive not to honor the FOIA.

If and when a journalist believes the FOIA is being violated, however, we have an obligation to our profession — and more importantly, to the public — to defend the law. Freedom is a precious thing, and freedom of information is no exception.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNewspapers@cox-internet.com.