The War on Information (Editorial)

Sonny Albarado, an editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette who also does yeoman’s work for the Arkansas FOI Coalition, recently sounded the alarm to members of the Associated Press Managing Editors group: Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act, one of the first and best in the country for creating transparent government and holding government officials accountable, is under unprecedented attack.

The FOI, which had been amended to create 19 exemptions during the past 45 years, is the subject of more than 20 separate pieces of legislation in the current legislative session alone. And none of those bills, you may rest assured, seeks to give Arkansans more information than they are currently entitled to by law.

One of the most astonishing would require that all candidates for public office pay the cost of a State Police background check so that any criminal convictions that would disqualify the candidate from office can be identified before the election. That’s a great idea. But the bill goes on to say that the results of those background checks — by a public agency of people who hope to be public officials — would be kept secret from the public. 

Another would make any “records or information” concerning any security plan at any school exempt from the FOI. That bill — which, like all bills to limit the public’s right to know, sounds so reasonable at first blush — is written so broadly that the public would not be able to know if a consultant has been hired to come up with a plan, whether a plan was drawn up and how much was paid for it. A parent would not be able to know whether a school has a plan. The subject of school safety could only be discussed in executive session, where no parents or teachers could have any input. And if, God forbid, a security plan failed, the public would not be able to learn what went wrong — was the plan flawed or was it poorly executed? 

The most frightening is a shell bill that says only, “The purpose of this act is to amend the Freedom of Information Act of 1967.” What could go into that shell? We shudder to think.