This morning, the Senate State Agencies committee voted unanimously to approve a bill that would exempt records of the state Capitol police from Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act.
Senate Bill 131 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) specifically limits the disclosure of “emergency and security plans” and personal information about Capitol officers, among other specific records. However, its detractors say, SB 131 is worded so broadly that the Capitol police could decline to release almost anything requested by the public. The exemption would encompass “records or other information that upon disclosure could reasonably be expected to be detrimental to the public safety.”
Stubblefield said the measure is necessary to prevent someone wishing to commit violence from gaining access to security-related information. The senator has sponsored similar legislation to exempt security plans at public schools or public colleges or universities. That bill passed the Senate earlier this month, but Stubblefield told reporters after today’s meeting that he is in the process of amending it. A number of other bills to curtail the FOIA have also been introduced in the 2017 session.
Tom Larimer of the Arkansas Press Association testified against SB 131, saying that it “would in effect create a secret police.” He said there’s “no evidence that anyone has FOIed something to create mayhem,” but added that security plans were only a part of the proposal’s open-ended exemption. “The broad language in the bill is our main objection to it,” Larimer said.
Stubblefield insisted limiting public access to security records is necessary because of changes in “culture [and] society.” He referenced the September 11th terrorist attacks as an example of this increased peril. “It’s a much more dangerous world today,” he declared.
After the committee meeting, the senator said he was motivated by shootings of law enforcement officers, such as the attack that killed five police in Dallas last July. Cops have “certainly have been the target this past year of a lot of bad things, and I just feel like we need to protect them any way we can,” he said. “I don’t feel like we’re jeopardizing any freedom of press by not letting them have these sensitive plans.”
Stubblefield referenced an incident in which he encountered a seeming lapse in Capitol security. “Two years ago, I walked into the Senate chamber early that morning, 8 o’clock. I looked up in the gallery, in the west gallery, and I saw a backpack. … Then I got to looking, and there’s a guy laying on the seats. And I asked [a Senate staffer], ‘What is this guy doing up there?’ she said, ‘I have no idea, he’s not supposed to be there.'” The man’s backpack, he said, “could have been loaded with dynamite … it could have had explosives, he could have had a gun in it — we didn’t have all these metal detectors [at the Capitol] then. He was sitting up in the gallery. He could have shot half the senators in there as they walked in, from that vantage point. Nobody checked him. So there was a potential for something tragic right there.” When security investigated, it turned out the man was not a threat, however: “Believe it or not he was just looking for a place to lay down and rest.”
One reporter asked Stubblefield whether the bill would exempt the results of a Capitol police investigation from the FOIA. “If the outcome had something to do with civil or criminal charges, that would be released. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. That’s going to make the headlines in the paper; you know that,” he replied. When asked about an internal investigation, the senator said, “if it’s an internal investigation, it depends on the level of that investigation and what it involves. Unless it’s something minor, but if it’s something major, it’s going to get out anyway.”
Stubblefield insisted his bill was a necessary security precaution: “I believe in transparency, but I also believe in protecting people’s lives.”
The committee also unanimously advanced another FOIA exemption bill, this one by Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs). SB 373 would exempt “a record that constitutes an attorney-client communication or attorney work product” from the sunshine law. After the meeting, Larimer said the press association opposes that bill as well because it “clutters the FOIA.” Any judge can order such attorney records sealed from the FOIA on a case-by-case basis, and frequently do, he said.