Sanders, Lawmakers Back Off Major FOIA Changes

Sanders, Lawmakers Back Off Major FOIA Changes
Eliza Hussman, president of the Arkansas Press Association and publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Neal Gladner, a past president of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association, testify Tuesday against SB9. Senators heard four hours of testimony, which was broadcast live on the Arkansas Legislature's website. (Arkansas Senate)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders retreated on legislation to undercut the state’s open records law on Tuesday, bowing to a torrent of public support of the Freedom of Information Act.

The governor, who had called a special session of the Arkansas General Assembly in part to restrict public access to a broad range of government records and communications, settled for much lesser exemptions related to records on her security detail.

The 1967 FOIA, amended many times through the years, is regarded as one of the finest in the nation, but legislation over the past several legislative sessions have taken aim at it as burdensome to agencies that must answer public requests and intrusive to deliberative processes and policymaking involving consultations with lawyers.

After a marathon Senate committee hearing in which regular Arkansans, press groups and conservatives and progressives alike condemned weakening the law, Senate President Bart Hester said a new bill will focus only on the governor’s security concerns.

“The security of our governor and her family should be the top priority for us,” Hester, a Republican from Hot Springs, said at a State Capitol news conference.

More: Read the new FOIA bill here: SB10

The new legislation would let the state decline to provide details about state constitutional officers’ security arrangements, including records on who travels with them on an Arkansas State Police airplane. The cost of individual trips would also be excluded from public view.

Little Rock lawyer and blogger Matt Campbell has sued after the state police refused to release details about Sanders’ plane trips.

And while Campbell isn’t satisfied, most defenders of the core of the FOIA expressed happiness that the people were heard.

Law professor and conservative columnist Robert Steinbuch, a passionate defender of the “sunshine law” and probably the state’s foremost expert on it, told Arkansas Business early Wednesday that “it’s a very good outcome, good for everyone.”

In support of the travel carve-out, Sanders said she has faced death threats going back to her days as press secretary for Donald Trump. But she said Tuesday that she asked lawmakers to limit the FOIA exclusions to her security, which she called “the most critical and important element of FOIA reform.”

The new legislation will not shield communications between Sanders and state department secretaries from public examination, nor withhold records from “deliberative process” work in policymaking, two controversial elements of the original legislation. Likewise, it won’t shield records of government interactions with attorneys, which Steinbuch and many others vehemently opposed. He said that section would allow government workers to contact attorneys at the first sign of any trouble or controversy, and then exclude all ensuing records from public examination.

Arkansas Press Association President and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Eliza Hussman Gaines spoke against gutting the FOIA at the meeting of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee gathering on Tuesday, a meeting that grew so raucous that Capitol Police removed one FOIA advocate, Jimmie Cavin.

Representatives of the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a FOIA task force formed in 2017 to advise policymakers and the Legislature on any changes to the open records and meetings law also spoke against major changes.

Neal Gladner, a past president of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association and its representative on the task force, told Arkansas Business he was pleased with Tuesday's outcome. The organization posted a statement of support of the new version on its Facebook page late Tuesday.

“I think the narrowly fashioned bill regarding security for this and future Governors and family members is a good outcome,” Gladner said early Wednesday. “I think the bigger story is the widespread support for the FOIA. As one of those who testified yesterday said, and I paraphrase, this attack on transparency managed to bring the right and left together to protect the FOIA. As a strong supporter of the FOIA, I was pleased to see the overwhelming support for transparency.”

In a post on its Facebook page, the Arkansas Press Association said the new proposal gives “our elected officials and their families a level of safety they deserve” while maintaining the strength of the FOIA.

Campbell, posting on X (the website formerly known as Twitter), expressed disappointment in the media groups' statements.

"This is disappointing. Just remember that you’re ok with needlessly amending FOIA when they come for more exemptions next session," he wrote.

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