Give light and the people will find their own way. – Motto of the former E.W. Scripps newspaper chain
Since the early days of our Republic, the press has played a key role in informing the citizenry of the actions of their government – local, state and national – and empowered people to act on that information.
Since then, federal, state and local laws have expanded the ability of citizens – and the press, on their behalf – to gain access to the information that politicians and government officials use to make decisions that affect the lives of their constituents.
This includes access to meetings of public officials as well as documents in a government agency’s possession.
These statutes are generally known as freedom of information laws, or Sunshine Laws because of the belief that sunlight is a powerful disinfectant against corruption and skullduggery.
Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act turned 50 in 2017 and is one of the strongest public records/open meetings laws in the nation.
Despite recent amendments that weakened it, the Arkansas FOIA remains one of the best tools available to pry loose information from sometimes reluctant officials that citizens need to stay informed and to feel empowered to act in their best interest.
This week – the 13th annual observance of national Sunshine Week – offers citizens and public officials an opportunity to reflect on how freedom of information laws help everyone be better informed and why such laws are essential to our experiment with democracy.
Launched in 2005 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (now the American Society of News Editors), Sunshine Week coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution and an author of the Bill of Rights.
The importance of Arkansas’ FOIA can be seen in a quick review of articles and opinion pieces in just one newspaper over a three-month span. Between December 12 and March 12, about 50 articles in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dealt with freedom of information issues.
Without the state Freedom of Information Act, Arkansans might not know about:
· Questions about the relationship between the taxpayer-funded University of Arkansas and the nonprofit Razorback Foundation, which claims that the FOIA doesn’t apply to it.
· An Arkansan’s failed efforts to get emails and other documents regarding his interactions with a state trooper that led to the man’s arrest and loss of his permit to carry a concealed weapon.
· The Mansfield mayor’s accusation that members of the city council violated the open-meetings part of the FOIA by plotting via text messages to strip him of his authority.
· The identities of the people behind the companies that want to grow medical marijuana and the problems some licensing officials had meeting their own deadline for reviewing the applications.
· Faulkner County’s dysfunctional Office of Emergency Management.
Articles using the federal FOIA allowed people to learn that an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Task Force kept no records of its deliberations and that a former CEO of a payday lending firm is seeking the top job at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that once sought to severely limit payday lenders.
Some of these issues might seem arcane or of little consequence to you, but the FOIA also guards your right to know what your police department is doing, where crime occurs most frequently and whether your fire department is properly funded. The law also lets you find out about property values in your neighborhood and whether your school board is performing its job.
In other words, freedom of information laws protect your right to know what your government – the people you elected and the people they appoint and hire – is doing in your name and to you and for you.
Unfortunately, the Arkansas FOIA came under direct attack in 2017. By the end of the year’s legislative session, universities gained the power to keep secret the size of their police forces, the names and salaries of officers and other matters related to security. Legislators pretty much allowed public schools to hide all information about security.
One legislator said there are some things that should be kept secret because of the dangerous times we live in, because “bad actors” will seek advantage to do harm.
It’s unfortunate that fear is closing the door to the sunshine that the FOIA provides.
But it’s not all gloomy. As legislators last year put the brakes on some truly awful bills that would have gutted the FOIA even more, they created a task force to study our half-century old law to determine where it might need to be updated to reflect the rapid-fire, ubiquitous information age we live in.
There’s hope that this task force, composed of legislators, lawyers, journalists and transparency advocates, will come up with good suggestions for improving the law rather than further hobbling it.