Sunshine Week, a national celebration of the people’s right to know, serves each year as a reminder of how well we are served in this state by the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Originally passed in 1967, the Arkansas law stands as one of the best “sunshine” laws in the country. It guarantees any citizen of this state access to most meetings and records of both state and local governments.
Credit Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, and a decidedly Democratic state Legislature for bipartisan support of the FOI act. The law actually passed both chambers of the Legislature without a dissenting vote.
The Legislature has become so stridently partisan today that such an accomplishment seems nigh to impossible. Yet, 45 years ago, despite clashes with the Republican governor on other issues, the Democratic Legislature wisely set partisanship aside to declare:
“It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that the electors shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in making public policy…”
Those words establish the clear legislative intent of the Arkansas FOI act and sing to its purpose.
Remember, the law not only guarantees public access to information about what government is doing, but also provides the means to judge the performance of those who do the public’s business.
A recent court case underscores that point.
In a February decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the public’s right to know, saying that use-of-force reports prepared by a Little Rock police lieutenant are open records under the law.
The city tried to withhold the records, claiming them to be part of a lawfully protected personnel file. The court, however, said these particular documents are neither employee-evaluation nor job-performance records, but instead are reports routinely prepared by an officer and subject to release.
The bottom line here is that officer was acting on behalf of the public and the public should be able to know how and why he used force.
There are actually many instances in which the state’s high court has stood behind the plain language of the Arkansas FOI, broadly interpreting its provisions to favor disclosure of public records and access to public meetings.
Yet another FOI case is pending before the court. This one argues that the FOI act violates the constitutional rights of public officials, a position upheld at the lower court level. The circuit court decision out of Fort Smith has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
Just last week, the Supreme Court allowed the Arkansas Press Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, as well as state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, to file friend-of-the-court briefs in the case. All are asking reversal of the lower court decision.
It will be a while yet before we know whether the Supreme Court will again uphold the Arkansas FOI act, but the court’s past decisions certainly have helped keep it strong through the years.
So has the vigilance of organizations like the Arkansas Press Association, the Arkansas FOI Coalition and others — including a long line of state lawmakers stretching back to 1967 who have helped fend off efforts to weaken provisions of the state law.
That’s what it takes to have and to keep this long-guaranteed and cherished right to know.
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Brenda Blagg is a columnist for Northwest Arkansas Media and has been the Arkansas coordinator for Sunshine Week. E-mail comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.