Freedom of Information Act could be changed after bill

By Rachel Carner
On March 7, 2013

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act has been under the microscope in this 89th General Assembly, with more than 30 amendment bills submitted. One in particular, House Bill 1327, threatens the availability of policy information involving security and safety on school campuses.
Representative Marshall Wright, R-Forrest City, proposed the bill last month, citing the concern of keeping schools safe and secure by withholding information about the schools policies, procedures or plans regarding campus security. If this bill is passed, the public wont be able to access these security-sensitive documents, as they would be deemed confidential.

Arkansas FOI Act allows for anyone to access public records of federal agencies. Public records include paper documents, films, tapes and even objects such as evidence in a criminal prosecution. The act also grants access to open public meetings.

Currently more than 15 exemptions to the act are not accessible to the general public, including income tax records, medical records, adoption records, education records as well as the number of undercover cops serving, court-protected documents and grand jury minutes.

Tom Larimer, the executive director for Arkansas Press Association, expressed his concern about HB1327. While the title of the bill, to keep schools safe and secure, sounds really good, what in essence it does is make secret the security plans for the public schools or schools of higher education, he said. The bad thing about the bill, Larimer said, is how the public is supposed to know if (the school) has a security plan and if theyre abiding by their own security plan if the citizens cannot even ask for it.

Justin Cook, a senior English major of Harrisburg, said he didnt understand the reasoning for the bill considering the vital information at stake. There is a line that must not be crossed when it comes to the welfare and wellbeing of citizens. In fact, with the frequency of school shootings recently, I think this is the kind of information that should be shared and even taught in classes, Cook said. Many students have never been through a shooting, thankfully, but that means that they are also ill prepared for one were it to happen.

Members of the FOI Coalition, a group of concerned journalists, broadcasters, lawyers and others in the state who monitor and respond to threats against the peoples law, have discussed their concerns with Wright, stating they will object and testify against the bill in committee hearings.

After hearing them, Wright said he would not amend the bill to exclude the FOI exemption because the purpose of the bill would be negated. It was also a concern that when this comes up as a topic during a board meeting at these institutions, then that would be exempt from FOIA and would become a closed session. The coalition found that repugnant, Larimer said.

Larimer thinks college students should be concerned about the bill because they are members of the public. They have a right to know if theres a security plan, if in fact the school is doing what they said theyre doing in their security plan, Larimer said. Im not sure if Id feel any safer by knowing that. Wed just have to take the school officials word for that if they have a security plan in place.

Shena Dickson, a senior psychology major of Paragould, said its a right as an American citizen to be informed, especially on how facilities like ASU or public schools would respond in a dire situation. What if their private policy was something extreme or dangerous when bad situations arose? Dickson said. I wouldnt want to agree to something I had not even the slightest clue about.

Larimer said he believed this bill is one thats going to be fought out on Capitol Hill. With this run of FOI amendment bills that were dealing with right now, its becoming challenging at this point to keep the peoples business being conducted in public, unfortunately, he noted.

The bill was on the agenda to be discussed at the Education Committees Thursday meeting at the Capitol.

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