My husband, Rob Moritz, teaches journalism at the University of Central Arkansas, and he chairs the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act Task Force, an official body created by the Legislature in 2017 to review proposed changes in the public’s right to government documents. I want to get that out of the way, because Attorney General Tim Griffin recently suggested that Arkansas Business had not been transparent about my relationship with a member of the FOIA Task Force, even though that information had appeared repeatedly.
It’s true that the disclaimer didn’t appear in an editorial about the FOIA that displeased Griffin — an editorial I didn’t write or edit and which didn’t mention me, my husband or the FOIA Task Force. Because why would it?
This is an Opinion
My relationship to the Task Force’s chairman was prominently disclosed in a column I wrote after this spring’s regular legislative session about the cynical, unsuccessful attempt by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and state Rep. David A. Ray, R-Maumelle, to ram through a bill dramatically weakening Arkansas’ robust FOIA while telling Arkansans it needed to be more like those of other states. In the May 1 print edition, it was headlined, “Hey, We’re Not Always Last.”
Headlines that are suitable for print are not always helpful online, so on our website a search-engine-friendly headline was substituted: “Arkansas FOIA Safe for Now.” How quaint and naive. Just weeks after Ray’s bill was excoriated by FOIA fans across the political spectrum and died in committee, he and Sanders tried another blitzkrieg on the FOIA — this time in an “emergency” special session and using the equally cynical rationalizations of protecting the governor’s children and making government more efficient. (Being less accountable definitely would be more efficient.)
The same coalition regrouped to fight this attack on accountability, and the most egregious parts of the second proposal were excised, having nothing to do with security and everything to do with creating more state secrets. Still, much more than security for the governor and her family are newly exempt from public scrutiny, and Gov. Sanders has put us all on notice that she intends to deprive us of more information.
“Nobody said changing the status quo would be easy,” she said in a statement after depriving Arkansans of a small portion of the information she wanted to keep from us, “but this is a great starting place for making our government safer and more effective.” (Italics added.)
The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act was crafted in 1967, and it has been tweaked and updated and messed with constantly for 56 years. And once information is exempted, it is never reinstated. (Arkansas Business hasn’t been able to list the top-selling restaurants since former state Rep. Micah Neal, a Springdale restaurateur subsequently convicted of corruption, persuaded his colleagues to exempt local Advertising & Promotion Commission taxes from the FOIA in 2015.)
But not until 2023 has there been this kind of assault on the foundational assumption that what government does is the public’s business. Our FOIA is definitely not safe. The vulnerability of the people’s right to know is why a couple of strange bedfellows, former state Rep. Nate Bell and attorney David Couch, are already working on a referendum to add Freedom of Information to the state Constitution. A voter mandate that had never crossed my mind now seems urgent. Where do I sign?