In the summer of 1966 some of Arkansas’ best journalists were working on a project to bring freedom of information — open public meetings and records — to the state. Since 1953 the state had been operating under an open meetings law that actually was used more to close meetings than open them.
However, in 1966 a federal freedom of information law was passed, and the need for a state law became more obvious to the 20 or so members of the Little Rock Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi (later renamed the Society of Professional Journalists). The SDX membership consisted mostly of reporters and editors — the people who understood why such a law was needed.
Their president was Robert S. McCord, editor and publisher of the weekly North Little Rock Times and a journalist since his high school days.
With the help of a couple of lawyer friends, McCord and other journalists drafted a proposed bill that would guarantee the people’s rights to attend public meetings and to examine public documents.
They later enlisted state Sen. Ben Allen of Little Rock and state Rep. Leon Holsted of North Little Rock, both Democrats, to sponsor the bill in the 1967 legislative session.
That was also an election year, and longtime Gov. Orval Faubus decided not to seek re-election. His 1964 Republican opponent, Winthrop Rockefeller, had already pledged to run again, and the Democratic Party nominated former state Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson.
The Arkansas Press Association had scheduled its 1966 summer convention in Jonesboro, in part a tribute to the emerging Arkansas State College and the outstanding journalism program built by L.W. “Tex” Plunkett. Highlighting the convention agenda was a “meet the press” session featuring both Rockefeller and Johnson in what was then the brand-new Reng Center Ballroom (now Centennial Hall in the expanded and remodeled Reng Student Union).
I had finished my junior year as a journalism major at ASC and decided to stay there for summer school so I’d have more time for student publications as a senior. Our students were invited to sit in on the APA programs, and I got a chance to witness history.
During that session McCord stood up and asked both candidates: If elected governor and presented with a freedom of information bill, would you sign it? The idea was to get them both on record in favor, and it worked. Both said they’d gladly sign.
Actually there was little doubt about Rockefeller’s sentiments. After coming to Arkansas in the early 1950s as a Republican in a solidly Democratic state, he had seen much abuse of government power, election fraud and secrecy, especially in his home Conway County, and he had repeatedly been denied government records.
Of course, Rockefeller won the general election and took office the following January. McCord and other supporters of the FOI bill had to walk a tightrope to keep their bill from being seen as a Republican initiative. Having two highly respected Democrats carrying the bill proved effective, and it passed both houses without a dissenting vote. Rockefeller signed it on Feb. 14, 1967.
That’s not the end of the story, though.
The ink was hardly dry on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act before its first test — appropriately at a meeting of the City Council in McCord’s hometown of North Little Rock. The council decided to close the meeting to discuss a Public Service Commission order — clearly a violation of the new law. When the reporters present objected, City Attorney Reed Thompson said, “Go ahead and file your damn lawsuit.”
McCord’s newspaper did, and the result was a ringing endorsement of the law by the high court, styled as Laman v. McCord. (You can read his history of FOIA at http://www.foiarkansas.com/1010/1010mccord.html.)
Those are some of the reasons that Bob McCord has often been called the “father of FOI” in Arkansas. For many years afterward he was a staunch defender of the law while working for the Arkansas Democrat, then the Gazette and finally as an independent journalist.
Sadly, he died Saturday at the age of 84 from complications of pneumonia and Alzheimer’s disease.
He became a good friend and supporter of ASU (although he was a University of Arkansas graduate). After serving as national president of SDX, he helped me establish a student chapter at ASU. I tried to convince him on various occasions to become a college professor. He was a great journalist, a man of integrity and would have been a great teacher; he was articulate and always well prepared when speaking to classes or in public.
I last saw him about four years ago at a meeting of the FOIA Coalition in Little Rock, and the signs of Alzheimer’s were beginning to show. What a shame that this awful disease should claim such a brilliant mind.
Meanwhile, the Legislature continues to chip away at the law that McCord helped write. The number of attempts to water it down grows with each session.
Right now Gov. Mike Beebe has at least one on his desk, SB 225, which prohibits the release of the names and addresses of minor passengers in motor vehicle accident reports, supposedly a response to intrusive contacts by chiropractors. The bill would penalize the public instead of dealing with the abuse of a few.
As a tribute to Bob McCord, Gov. Beebe should veto this and any other offenses against freedom of information.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royosuddenlink.net.