Arkansas Governor Huckabee Sanders Tried to Restrict FOIA. The Pushback Was Swift.


When Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders summoned Arkansas lawmakers to Little Rock for a special legislative session this week to cut taxes and ban the state from mandating Covid-19 vaccinations, she added one more request: Overhaul the state’s longstanding Freedom of Information Act.

The law, as it stood, endangered her family, Ms. Sanders said, because it did not go far enough in shielding information about her security. She called for blocking the disclosure of such information, and also for other changes, urging lawmakers to limit the release of records related to policymaking and discussions of legal strategy.

“They don’t care about transparency,” Ms. Sanders, a Republican who took office in January, said in a news conference last week, referring to people she saw as taking advantage of the law, which gives any resident of the state the right to have access to government records. “They want to waste taxpayer dollars, slow down our bold conservative agenda and, frankly, put my family’s lives at stake.”

But the pushback was swift, swelling beyond organizations representing news organizations and government transparency advocates to include conservatives and some of the governor’s own supporters.

“This is not about ‘security’ in any sense of the word,” the Pulaski County Republican Committee posted on its Facebook page. The Arkansas branch of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group, denounced what it called an attempt to erode a “cornerstone of democracy,” even as it praised the governor for calling a special session to push tax cuts.

In a moment when the country’s politics have become highly polarized, supporters of the legislation, perhaps unwittingly, seemed to run into a rare slice of common ground: distrust of the motives of government officials, and resistance to a plan that would allow them to operate with less scrutiny.

Lawmakers approved a stripped-down version of the legislation on Thursday, restricting the release only of records related to the protection of the governor and other senior state officials, including security procedures, emergency plans and surveillance footage.

“The power of the people was on display,” Joey McCutchen, a lawyer and a founder of the Arkansas Transparency in Government Group, told lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday on the revised version. “People from all walks of life — left, right, Democrat, Republican, poor, rich, across the spectrum — came together to talk about the importance of our right to know.”

In a statement, Ms. Sanders called the bill “a great starting place for making our government safer and more effective.”

While highlighting the boundaries of the new governor’s influence, the commotion at the State Capitol this week was also something more novel: a display of bipartisan agreement, and of lawmakers responding to the concerns of their constituents.

Scott Gray, a member of the Saline County Republican Committee, thanked legislators on Wednesday “for listening to the people and for whittling this down to a security-only bill.”

He added, “I’ve never had Democrats support anything I’ve said until this week.”

The governor’s push came after a blogger in Arkansas sought information about how much it cost taxpayers to protect Ms. Sanders and her family, particularly during a trip to Europe for a trade mission over the summer.

In the news conference last week, she described dangers to herself and her family that she attributed to a fractured political climate and her visibility as a political figure — she was the White House press secretary for nearly two years under President Donald J. Trump before seeking office. A 74-year-old man in Russellville, Ark., had said he wanted to shoot her, she said. And just last month, an Oklahoma man pleaded guilty to making threats against Ms. Sanders and other Republican leaders.

The original proposal would have ended the release of an array of records related to how government policies and decisions are reached. It would also have blocked the release of certain documents prepared by lawyers representing state agencies or officials, according to the bill.

Eliza Hussman Gaines, publisher of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the proposal had “nothing to do with protecting human lives and everything to do with protecting state government from public scrutiny.”

The provision about records related to policymaking deliberations was replaced with one limiting the release of communications among the governor, her staff and the leaders of cabinet-level departments. State Senator Bart Hester, a Republican sponsor of the legislation, described the revised version as “drastically different” from the original bill.

Still, opponents said the legislation would water down a Freedom of Information Act that elected officials from both parties have long held up as a point of pride, describing the 1967 law as one of the stronger state “sunshine laws” protecting government transparency.

But officials have contended that elements of the law were ripe for reconsideration, as it had not kept pace with the rapid evolution of technology.

“The last time F.O.I.A. was modernized, the iPhone hadn’t been invented yet,” the state attorney general, Tim Griffin, a Republican, said in June in a statement announcing that a bipartisan group would explore recommendations for updating the law.

New technologies, Mr. Griffin said, have allowed “public entities to create and retain more records than ever before, making responding to F.O.I.A. requests more complex and increasing the amount of F.O.I.A. requests being lodged.”

Other states have taken steps to tighten their public information laws. In Florida, which has historically had some of the strongest requirements for transparency, lawmakers voted in May to shield the travel records of Gov. Ron DeSantis and other top officials from public view. In New Jersey, a recent proposal called for new restrictions on people who lodge record requests most frequently, and on which documents can be released, among other measures.

Bill Kopsky, the executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, warned that a watered-down Freedom of Information Act would allow fraud and abuses of power to fester.

“Arkansas can only remain the land where people rule,” he said in a statement, “when we can see what our government is doing.”

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