Preserve the FOIA
As the Arkansas State Legislature continues its 92nd General Assembly in Little Rock, it’s a good idea for the state’s residents to pay attention.
The 135 state legislators — 35 in the Senate and 100 in the House of Representatives — have been chosen by the people of Arkansas to represent their best interests in leading our state. Whether that actually happens is a matter of opinion, and of course the best opinion is always an informed one.
Speaking of an informed constituency, one of the legislative issues that has been a hot topic in recent general assemblies — and is likely to be one this year, as well — is Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act. That’s the state law that provides for public access to government records. It’s one of the most useful tools there is for journalists such as myself, but it’s also important for all citizens who have a right to know what their government is doing.
Arkansas has a strong FOI law (the lack of any real penalty for violating the statute notwithstanding), although it does provide for multiple exemptions. The “working papers” of state lawmakers, for instance, are shielded from the FOIA. Say, for instance, you wanted to see copies of e-mail correspondence between a state legislator and a private college/church that has received state funds directed by that state legislator. Sorry, that’s exempt.
Over the years, there have been attempts to create extra exemptions to the FOIA. One well-documented attempt was SB373 of 2017, which failed to gain approval. That bill would have exempted certain communications between attorneys and the public entities they represent from disclosure under the FOIA. As a matter of fact, some of the language in SB373 was actually written by attorneys for the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University — public entities that would have been affected by the bill’s passage. That last bit of information was uncovered by journalists thanks to — you guessed it — the FOIA.
There’s speculation among newspaper folks that a version of SB373 will be introduced again in the current legislative session, and there very likely will be other bills targeting freedom of information. Some of our state legislators would prefer to keep public business out of the public view. There might even be one or two who just don’t like newspapers and see watering down the FOIA as a way to attack our livelihood.
The plain, simple truth is that people deserve to know what their government is doing — the good, the bad and the ugly. Any attempt to weaken the FOIA is an attack on the rights of the people.
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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.