This month we observe the 50th anniversary of the state’s “Sunshine Law,” a significant piece of legislation that changed the way public officials do business, forcing them to discuss and decide matters in the open and within the public view rather than in private sessions as had been common practice.
The day the sun shone in was Feb. 14, 1967, when then Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller signed the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into law. It has since been deemed one of the strongest Sunshine Laws in the country and it is the envy of many states – states that adopted similar laws only to have them amended so heavily that they no longer served their intended purpose.
The Arkansas FOIA has been amended only 23 times to offer exemptions for things such as grand jury minutes, child adoption records, prison blueprints, and other reasons that can be easily justified. Only 23 times in 50 years, but it’s not for lack of trying.
The FOIA anniversary falls during a legislative session in which lawmakers once again are attempting to close the shades against that bright sunshine. During every legislative session, our state press association leads the effort to monitor proposed bills as they are presented in Little Rock and lobby against those that are unreasonable efforts to weaken the law.
Bills in the current session include one to withhold accident reports for 30 days; one to create an FOIA exemption for school security plans and records; and one to create an exemption for police dash cameras and body-worn cameras.
State Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View was listed as a co-sponsor of HB 1403 regarding accident reports. Information from her and APA reps indicates the bill has been deferred by its lead sponsor, Rep. Justin Boyd of Fort Smith, who was trying to address situations in which people pull names of accident victims and then use deception and harassing tactics to urge them to seek certain treatments. Irvin assures us that the bill will not be re-introduced without an amendment to retain media access, an offer Boyd had made to APA representatives who lobbied against the bill.
However, the APA will never seek to obtain privileges for newspapers beyond what are afforded to the general public regarding freedom of information. We represent the public and the people’s right to know, and we don’t want special access to meetings or information beyond what is afforded to the general public. We want to defend the FOIA’s legislative intent: “That the public’s business be conducted in public, and that the records of government be open and accessible to the People of Arkansas.”
It’s really pretty simple.
There are usually other ways to solve the problem of people misusing public information without creating FOIA exemptions.
The old days of routine closed-door meetings in smoke-filled rooms are gone, and we take for granted the tenets of open government. In general, we don’t have to worry that significant actions are being taken in secret. But we must remember that is entirely the result of the FOIA that Rockefeller championed. Without the FOIA, Arkansas residents would remain in the dark about many actions of public officials at every level – from state government down to city and county, school boards and public agencies.
We expect our legislators and other public officials to put on their sunglasses and enjoy the sunshine. It has been the public’s right for the past 50 years and we will not be forced back into the dark.