Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Friday she will add a proposal to amend the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act to the call for Monday’s special legislative session. Huckabee claims the 1967 law is “in dire need of an update.” And, added the state’s sunshine law slows down state government operations and exposes her and other constitutional officers to security risks.
The proposed amendment comes after attorney and blogger Matt Campbell filed a request seeking records Arkansas State Police on how much state police spent protecting Sanders.
The Arkansas Press Association issued a response following Sander’s announcement stating:
“The Arkansas Press Association agrees that the security of our elected officials, their spouses and their children should be taken seriously and, where appropriate, sensitive information as it pertains to security should be protected. If that was the only focus of this bill, we would certainly understand the governor’s reasoning for calling a special session. But it’s not. This bill goes far beyond the goal of protecting our public officials and their families. If this bill passes, it will drastically weaken Arkansas FOIA laws and the public’s access to information. For all intents and purposes, this bill will eliminate the ability to hold our government accountable by shielding processes that provide essential context for decisions that affect millions of Arkansans. There must be transparency in government processes and accountability as to how taxpayer dollars are spent. Furthermore, the APA adamantly disagrees with the notion that this bill, in its entirety, constitutes an emergency. Security is just a small slice of an otherwise larger, transparency-killing piece of legislation. The APA has agreed to participate in a working group that has been tasked with reviewing and recommending changes to FOIA for the 2025 general session. This group met for the very first time today. It’s disheartening this group has had no time to review or give recommendations on these momentous changes being proposed. Our association’s participation in this group demonstrates our willingness to be reasonable and to seek common ground. However, to fundamentally change these laws in a three-day special session with a bill that was drafted just this week is imprudent. This bill is far-reaching, applying to all state offices – not only in the present but for future administrations as well. Do we really want a blackout of information about how decisions are arrived upon in state government? We hope that the members of the General Assembly will choose to stand not with the APA or the Governor but with their constituents who have a right to know how their government operates.“
Attorney and counsel for the Arkansas Press Association, John Tull, was appointed to the Arkansas FOIA Review Working Group (referenced above) by Attorney General Tim Griffin in July. Tull stated the proposed changes would “put a large hole in the Freedom of Information Act.”
Republican State Representative Marcus Richmond responded to the call for change with the FOIA stating:
“I intend to listen to all of the debate before final determination of how I will vote. I have voted in the past to stop any proposed change in our FOIA laws, but I am concerned about the weaponization of FOIA. I learned very quickly while serving in the Middle East you do not get second chances. We have asked these key board warriors and lawyers to police themselves from abusing this system and they have refused. I fell it is wrong for lawyers to shake down the public even when their cases are dismissed by a judge with prejudice. They still try to collect lawyer fee for up to one thousand dollars an hour. This is happening in Pulaski County with a lawyer suing for twenty thousand dollars. Taxpayers should not have to pay for a failed lawsuit. The taxpayers are paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for frivolous lawsuits. It has become a cash cow for these unscrupulous lawyers. So instead of me being an automatic no those who abuse FOIA are going to have to show me they intend to be responsible in the futures. Too many lawyers had their talking points ready before a bill was written.”
In section 5 of the bill’s draft, a proposed attorney-client privilege exemption under FOIA. It would also change the standard for courts awarding attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs in FOIA lawsuits, which critics said would deter citizens from filing lawsuits to seek records being withheld.
Attorney Whitfield Hyman responded to the proposed changes, stating, “Under the new changes literally every document created by the state government will arguably not be releasable under FOIA. This allows the bureaucrats to create rules, regulations, and influence our elected representatives in complete secret. Government will grow and the rights of man will decrease.”
The special session, set for Monday, September 11 – Wednesday, September 13, will also include tax cuts and COVID-19 regulation changes.