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February 21, 2017

Don't take FOIA for granted

By Brenda Blagg
This article was published February 16, 2017 at 4:00 a.m.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

The law isn't quite what it was when first enacted and signed by Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1967, but it still stands as one of the best "sunshine" laws in the country.

And it still opens most meetings and records of government to the people those governments serve here in Arkansas. At least, it does for now.

As happens every two years, the law is under attack in the Legislature.

Fifty years since the FOI Act became law, perhaps too many people take it for granted.

Before the law, citizens weren't guaranteed they could even observe a meeting of a city council or a school board or get access to records kept by any government, even though the governments exist to serve their citizens.

Their accessibility changed with the current law's passage in 1967.

Oh, there had been another, older law in place in Arkansas that purported to open up government, but it was toothless. It allowed governing boards to shut down citizen access at will.

Their meetings and records were declared to be open -- unless they chose not to open them. Generally, they chose not to open them.

That law, one of many ushered in nationwide after World War II, proved to be little better than no law at all. Arkansas and other states nevertheless owe a debt to the World War II veterans who came home from that war intent on having a say in their governments.

After fighting and seeing friends die to defend their freedoms, they demanded a voice in state and local affairs.

They're the ones who cracked open the doors of government, which had too often been conducted in secret. They pushed for what became known as "sunshine" laws, laws designed to let the public see the conduct of public business.

It took a while for some of these strong advocates to get into public office and in place to alter the laws to really open up government to the people being governed.

It happened in Arkansas in 1967.

Three individuals, two of them Democratic legislators and the third the state's Republican governor, get most of the political credit for passage of the law.

Gov. Rockefeller considered the law his most enduring legacy. His passion for open government arose from personal experience.

The first Republican elected to the governor's office since Reconstruction had learned firsthand during his campaign how unwelcoming the Democratically controlled courthouses and city halls could be in Arkansas.

He and his supporters were reportedly refused access to public information like voting records and other data. So he was well conditioned to support a stronger freedom of information law when it was presented to him.

The bill's lead sponsors were Sen. Ben Allen, a Little Rock lawyer, and Rep. Leon Holsted, a North Little Rock druggist. They accomplished a near impossible feat. After much negotiation and grandfathering in numerous exemptions to the law, they passed the bill without a single dissenting vote.

Both remained strong advocates for open government throughout their legislative service, as have many other lawmakers over the 50 years since.

Much of the impetus for the 1967 law's passage came from journalists, led by Robert McCord, then editor of the North Little Rock Times and president of the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, then known as Sigma Delta Chi.

McCord is widely recognized as the "father" of the Arkansas FOI Act, although he always emphasized the role other journalists played, too. Journalists not only were key advocates for the 1967 law but also helped draft the language of it.

To this day, journalists are vocal supporters. The Arkansas Press Association and the Arkansas FOI Coalition, made up largely of journalists, continue the advocacy.

They are engaged now in fighting more proposed exemptions to the law in an era when such attempts to weaken it come frequently.

Also critical to the stability of the law has been the role of the courts, specifically the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The law got a quick legal test soon after its passage. McCord and a reporter for his newspaper sued after the North Little Rock mayor and city council members met privately with the city's attorney.

Then as now, the law did not exempt such meetings from the FOI law.

McCord prevailed. In a 1968 opinion, written by Associate Justice George Rose Smith, the court set the precedent that successor courts have followed ever since to uphold the law.

"It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner," wrote Smith. "We have no hesitation in asserting our conviction that the Freedom of Information Act was passed wholly in the public interest and is to be liberally interpreted to the end that its praiseworthy purposes may be achieved."

Well said. May that belief -- and the Arkansas FOI Act -- endure.

Freelance columnist Brenda Blagg is a founding member of the Arkansas FOI Coalition.

Editorial on 02/16/2017
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