Monday, March 06, 2017

Fueled by Trump's hostility to news media, Arkansas advances bills to reduce open records

Arkansas lawmakers last week voted in favor of several measures to limit freedom of information, Lisa Hammersly reports for Arkansas Online. On Thursday a committee advanced a bill, presented as protecting school security information from terrorists and plotters, that "would prohibit release of records 'that upon disclosure could reasonably be expected to be detrimental to the public safety.'" The bill "would exempt information from kindergartens through universities relating to the number of licensed security officers, school resource officers, or other security personnel, as well as any personal information about those individuals."

Two other bills that advanced Thursday "would curb the reach of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act focused on records pertaining to the Governor's Mansion and grounds and camera footage showing the death of any police officer," Hammersly writes. Legislators also reviewed a pending bill that "would change the current standard that requires government agencies to provide most records requests in no more than three days." It would "allow an agency to determine that a request is too large, complicated or 'burdensome' and to reply in writing with a longer time period to fulfill the request."

On Wednesday the House State Agencies and Government Affairs Committee passed two measures that would "create exemptions from the public disclosure law," John Moritz  and Michael R. Wickline report for Arkansas Online. Open-government advocates say one bill "would prevent records constituting attorney-client communication and attorney litigation documents from disclosure." Lawyers argued "such protection is needed to prevent opposing counsel from requesting access to notes and other legal materials while in litigation against state agencies. But opponents argued that the bill could also allow agencies to make any record secret simply by making sure it passed in front of a lawyer."

Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, wrote in an editorial that President Trump's attitude towards the media is pooling over to states. He writes, "There is a decided hostile attitude toward 'the media' in general at the legislature and since technically 'we' are part of the media we’re taking the brunt. I had speculated, at least to myself, that the present animosity toward government transparency has been fueled by the present anti-media sentiment in Washington, D.C."

"I had speculated that this might be the case that some perhaps most of the current legislature, are just echoing what they’re hearing out of D.C., and it is now not so much nuanced in the Arkansas legislature as it is an openly hostile attitude," he writes. "We know going into every session that we’re going to have these fights to preserve the public’s right to know in Arkansas, but nothing could have prepare us for the open hostility we’ve encountered."

Larimer, who urges journalists to keep readers informed, especially on how their elected officials are voting, wrote, "We often talk about the proverbial 'slippery slope' when it comes to amending the FOIA, meaning that once it begins it will be difficult to stop. Well, it’s not so much proverbial any more. It is a cold reality."

Sunshine Week, which celebrates open government, is from March 13-19.

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