There's only one thing newspaper managers detest more than wasting resources that could go toward gathering more stories and photos and that's when someone purposely refuses to comply with the state's Freedom of Information Act.
There’s only one thing newspaper managers detest more than wasting resources that could go toward gathering more stories and photos and that’s when someone purposely refuses to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Since 1967, Arkansas has had one of the nation’s strongest FOI laws. Over the years, some legislators have tried to chip away at it, but the law largely has held up against challenges because enough people understand that government works best when the governed know what their elected and appointed officials are doing.
However, on a regular basis, someone somewhere in our state will get a goofy idea that the public doesn’t have a right to know something or a group of elected yahoos will meet down at the local greasy spoon to talk about their upcoming meeting or a school board will go into executive session because the next topic on the agenda is one better discussed behind closed doors.
All these folks know that what they’re doing is wrong, just like my puppy knows he’s doing something he’s not supposed to be doing when I catch him eating the pizza I left too close to the edge of the counter.
Some of the worst offenders are the folks charged with upholding the law. Police and sheriff departments spend lots and lots of time and effort — paid for with your tax dollars — deciding what to and what not to release to the public.
We have a situation in my hometown of Conway that is a textbook example of a law enforcement agency absolutely refusing to abide by the law. Conway Police Department issues partial incident reports, saving the bulk of details about the incidents for “supplemental” reports that usually don’t ever see the light of day. These added-on documents are part of an “ongoing investigation” is the stated rationale.
The law is pretty clear on the subject, and state Supreme Court rulings over the years, especially in Hengel v. City of Pine Bluff, spell out in black letters what law enforcement agencies must provide and what they have an exemption to withhold. Mike Hengel, then editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, had simply asked for basic documents but had been denied. It was only after a lengthy court battle that he won.
There probably isn’t an editor in the state who hasn’t had to go toe to toe with a police chief or sheriff at some time on the issue of public records, and that’s a shame. By the nature of our job, journalists see the worst of our society — the repeat violent offenders, the drug manufacturers, the spouse and child abusers. Truth be told, journalists are probably more hawkish on criminals than the general population.
But too many law enforcement officers look at journalists as the enemy, people out to compromise their case.
Nothing could be further from the truth, even for the go-getters wanting to scoop the other media outlets. We don’t want suspects who are actually criminals to go free. We want them in jail just like everyone else. But it’s our job to disseminate information within certain confines, and our FOIA spells out some of those parameters.
So, what do newspaper folks do when they come across a blatant FOI violation?
Option 1 is to use the persuasive power of the press and public opinion to shame the offender into doing the right thing.
Option 2 goes back to that spending resources on non-news items. A legitimate civil lawsuit tends to go a long way toward changing policy, if not attitudes.
Which works better? An editorial or two, combined with a front-page story spelling out the nose snubbing, usually gets the job done, but as Hengel found out, sometimes people have to learn an FOI lesson the hard way.
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Rick Fahr is publisher of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.