Multiple proposals that are circulating throughout this year's Arkansas legislative session have Freedom of Information Act advocates worried because they say there is a potential to chip away at one of the nation’s most cherished rights: The free flow of information related to governmental operations.
One of those proposals comes from Republican Sen. Bart Hester, who is sponsoring a bill to keep the source of the state's lethal injection drugs a secret.
“Our goal is to allow the Department of Correction to implement the laws the Legislature passes that the people of Arkansas overwhelmingly support,” Hester said.
Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, told the Associated Press that Hester's proposal and others are "death by a thousand cuts. When you keep chipping away, eventually those chips add up. That’s what we’re seeing. It’s just exemptions where we feel like they’re not necessary exemptions.”
Another proposal pending before the House would allow winners of lottery jackpots of $500,000 or more to keep their identities a secret. The lawmaker behind the measure said the move is needed to protect lottery winners.
Opponents of the bill say the measure would prevent the public from knowing whether there was any misconduct in the lottery program.
“If you hide information about lottery winners, you don’t know whether the winner might be connected to someone in the lottery, you don’t know whether someone in the lottery has arranged for someone outside the lottery to win,” Sonny Albarado, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editor and member of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Coalition, told a legislative panel last week, according to the AP.
Other proposed exemptions working their way through the Legislature are measures to create a Maternal Mortality Review Committee and a Maternal and Perinatal Outcomes Quality Review Committee. The committees’ records and proceedings would be exempt from the FOI under those two bills. Meanwhile, a proposal aimed at expanding the state’s FOI law by requiring certain private groups such as university foundations to release their records failed before a Senate panel last week.
Unlike 2017, many of the FOI bills are going before a task force formed to review any proposed changes to the state’s open-records law. The panel was formed two years ago by the Legislature in response to the flood of exemptions proposed.
Lawmakers aren’t required to take proposed FOI changes to the task force. Ellen Kreth, who chairs the panel, said it’s been successful in explaining to lawmakers the importance of the FOI and ways to scale back exemptions that would be too broad.
Republican Rep. Michelle Gray, who had proposed a measure she said was intended to protect the identities of confidential informants, has said she’s reworking the measure after members of the task force said it would keep many details of police investigations secret. The lottery bill, which initially would have kept all winners’ identities secret, was amended after sponsors met with the panel.
“I think we’re effective if they will listen to us and let us collaborate with them,” Kreth said.
Although the APA is neutral on House Bill 1499, many in print journalism heralded the proposal because it would amend the law concerning the publication of notice required for a statutory foreclosure. This is not only considered important for a newspaper's bottom line — these are considered legal advertisements and generate revenue — but is also key to the access of public information.
The proposal says, in part, that "If the county in which the trust property is situated does not have a newspaper of general circulation as required by subdivision (a)(1) of this section, or for any reason cannot meet the publication requirements, the mortgagee or trustee shall publish the notice in: (1) A newspaper of general statewide daily publication; and (2) The manner required by subdivision (a)(1) of this section."
That subdivision states that the mortgagee or trustee "shall publish the notice in a newspaper of general circulation in the county in which the trust property is situated one time a week for four consecutive weeks before the date of sale. The final publication shall be nor more than 10 days before the sale."
Following is a list of the proposed legislation that that Arkansas Press Association is closely monitoring. Some of them have garnered the APA's support, while others are labeled as potentially damaging to the flow of public information.
HB 1003: An act to add anti-bullying measures at schools, to allow school boards to meet in executive sessions for bullying investigations. The APA opposes this legislation.
HB 1015: Requires journalism to be offered as an elective course in public high schools. The APA supports this legislation.
HB 1041: Raises the threshold for municipalities to competitively bid projects from $20,000 to $50,000, thus abolishing public notice requirements for municipal expenses between $20,000 and $50,000. The APA opposes this legislation.
HB 1163: Allows municipalities to maintain three copies of revisions of codifications of ordinances available to the public in the clerk’s office rather than publish notice of the revisions or codification. The APA is neutral on this legislation.
HB 1178: Changes state procurement law for a variety of purposes, but adds a specific Freedom of Information Act exemption for requests for information from potential bidders. The APA opposes this legislation.
HB 1231: Establishes rights for student journalists at Arkansas higher education institutions. The APA supports this legislation.
SB 3: Requires reporting from physicians and healthcare facilities requiring details information about abortion procedure complications and exempts the required report from the Freedom of Information Act. The APA opposes this legislation.
SB 118: Requires educational institutions to provide students and faculty broad latitude to engage in free speech and prohibits individuals from suppressing free speech. The APA is neutral on this legislation.
SB 76: Amends the law concerning emergency temporary locations for meetings of a governing body; and to declare an emergency. The APA is neutral on this legislation.
HB 1302: Provides for rules that affect multiple state agencies to be grouped together for the purpose of providing notice, holding hearings and advancing rules legislatively. The APA is neutral on this legislation.
HB 1343: Requires a county’s annual financial report to be published on the county’s website as well as in the newspaper. The APA is neutral on this legislation.
HB 1382: Exempts lottery winners’ identities from the Freedom of Information Act. The APA opposes this legislation.
SB 230: Creates a new civil action for invasion of privacy and allows a lawsuit against someone for intruding into private affairs or publicizing an individual in a false light. The APA opposes this legislation. The APA opposes this legislation.
SB 231: Expands the definition of “public records” in the Freedom of Information Act to include records of a private entity that spends a minimum of 20 percent of its time, resources and efforts supporting a government function. The APA opposes this legislation.
SB 233: Amends notice requirements for school elections. The APA opposes this legislation.
SB 277: Removes public notice requirement for internet sale of certain surplus county property. The APA opposes this legislation.
HB 1404: Allows for publication of a school district’s budget in a newspaper published in or with a bona fide circulation in the county or counties where the school district is located. The APA is neutral on this legislation.
HB 1417: Establishes a Freedom of Information Act exemption for the identities of confidential informants. The APA opposes this legislation. The APA opposes this legislation.
HB 1432: Protects rights of high school student journalists and adds protections for student media advisors. The APA supports this legislation.
SB 306: Allows the winner of a Powerball or Mega Millions drawing to make his or her records with the Arkansas Lottery Commission confidential under the Freedom of Information Act. The APA opposes this legislation.
SB 319: Provides for additional public notice requirements in a local government taking of abandoned or blighted property. The APA supports this legislation.
HB 1440: Establishes the Maternal Mortality Review Committee exempts the committee from the Freedom of Information Act. The APA opposes this legislation.
HB 1441: Establishes the Maternal and Perinatal Outcomes Quality Review Committee and exempts the committee from the Freedom of Information Act. The APA opposes this legislation.
HB 1499: Changes public notice requirements for statutory foreclosures. The APA is neutral on this legislation
HB 1500: Exempts cybersecurity threat assessments from disclosure under FOIA. The APA is neutral on this legislation.
The Associated Press and Arkansas Press Association contributed to this report.