Arkansas Press Association chief says Senate bill, other legislation looks to water down state FOIA rules

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 284 views 

The head of the Arkansas Press Association (APA) said legislation approved by the state Senate that would shield certain security records from public view at K-12 schools and state-supported colleges and universities is among several measures aimed at weakening Arkansas’ Freedom of Information (FOIA) rules, considered among the strongest in the nation.

APA Executive Director Tom Larimer made his comments Thursday (Feb. 9) after Senate Bill 12, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, was approved by lawmakers in the Senate by a vote 24-5. The bill now moves to the House, where the lower chamber is expected to take up the measure next week.

In pitching his bill in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday and on the Senate floor Thursday, Stubblefield emphasized there was no opposition to his bill and that his legislation would address rising concerns about public safety and security at Arkansas public schools and universities.

“We live in a totally different world than we did 50 years ago,” Stubblefield told fellow lawmakers. “We have to do things that we wouldn’t have dreamed of 50 years ago.”

Under SB 12, any emergency, security records, or other information related to public safety at state-support schools and universities would be exempt from state FOIA disclosure.

That would include “records or other information that upon disclosure could reasonably be expected to be detrimental to the public safety, including without limitation records or other information concerning emergency or security plans, school safety plans, procedures, risk assessments, studies, measures or systems,” the bill reads.

In addition, Stubblefield’s legislation would exempt from the state FOIA any records or “other information” related to the personal information of licensed security and school resource officers, or other security personnel involved in public safety at Arkansas schools, colleges and universities.

On the Senate floor, Stubblefield responded tersely to several questions about whether language in the bill was too far-reaching and legally defensible. Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, was concerned about a legal challenge.

“It shouldn’t be so broad that (someone) wouldn’t be able to get any information. I think that is my question – how broad is this bill?” Smith said, citing possible future legal challenges.

Other senators expressed concerns that the bill would shield information from parents seeking to protect their children in cases where students came in contact with school security officers or personnel. At the end of the 15-minutes debate, Stubblefield refused a request by Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock to pull down his bill and address language that caused some lawmakers concern. In defending his bill, Stubblefield cited an incident at the University of Arkansas at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium where the campus police had enacted additional security measures at a football game where undercover officers were placed in and around the arena. Under SB 12, a reporter or the public would be unable to FOI details of that security plan, he said.

Larimer said Stubblefield was fully aware the APA has some of the same questions and concerns about SB 12 that were raised in committee and on the Senate floor, but chose to run his bill without input from state press officials.

“We were opposed to SB 12 and Sen. Stubblefield knew we were opposed to it,” Larimer said following Thursday’s Senate vote.

The state’s top FOIA official said the APA was monitoring other legislative committees on Wednesday, and Stubblefield broke a handshake deal to not run his bill when he realized press representatives would not be able to attend the prior day’s Senate committee meeting.

“He advised us he would not run it in committee without telling us and we’ve been staffing the (Senate Education) meeting just in case,” Larimer said. “On yesterday, we had two other bills in two other committees and we didn’t have anybody in (Senate Education) and he saw his opportunity to run that bill without us there and got it out of committee.

“We maintain our opposition to (SB 12), which is just another in several bills working their way through the legislature that would weaken the FOIA considerably,” Larimer continued. “It caught us by surprise … because we took him by his word and obviously that was a mistake.”

Attempts to reach Sen. Stubblefield by email and phone concerning Larimer’s remarks on Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful.

As for the APA’s contention that the legislature was looking to water down the Arkansas FOIA in the 2017 session, there are at least a dozen bills working their way through the General Assembly that deal with FOIA issues. Some of those bills would remove from the public view information ranging from medical marijuana patient data and details of the state’s economic development efforts to child abuse and law enforcement records.

In response to questions about Stubblefield’s bill and other FOIA legislation now under consideration at the State Capitol, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office provided the following statement through spokesman Judd Deere: “Attorney General Rutledge will protect the ideals of an open, transparent government and like any piece of legislation moving through the General Assembly, she is committed to working with the sponsors to ensure that if the law were challenged it would be upheld.”

In the past, the AG’s office has partnered with the APA and other legal groups in publishing the “Freedom of Information Act” handbook after every regular session. The AG’s website notes that Arkansas’ FOIA is “one of the most comprehensive and strongest open-records and open-meetings laws in the country.”

“Attorneys General in Arkansas have been vigorous defenders of the act since its passage in 1967,” the website states.

Under Rutledge, the AG’s office has also conducted FOIA webcasts in 2015 and 2016, along with “roadshow” workshops in West Memphis, Russellville, Conway, Hope and other communities. The attorney general’s office also has another FOIA webcast scheduled for Feb. 22, which is free and open to the public.

Nationally, several FOIA watchdog groups have noted an increase in the filing of legislation seeking open record exemptions at the state level citing public safety, security and terrorism risks.

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