What does the FOIA mean for you?
March 19, 2015
As taxpayers who support governmental entities, Arkansans have a right to review an array of records at every level of government – state and local – and to attend the meetings of policy makers and private organizations that receive public funds and are intertwined with government.
That right is provided by the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law enacted by the General Assembly in 1967 after a strong push from a coalition of citizens and journalists and with the support of then-Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. The bill passed the House and Senate without a dissenting vote. Governor Rockefeller later reflected that passage of the FOIA was one of the most significant achievements of his time in office.
Months later, in a landmark decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court was faced with interpreting the FOIA after a court challenge. In its opinion, the Court said: “We have no hesitation in asserting our conviction that the Freedom of Information Act was passed wholly in the public interest and is to be liberally interpreted to the end that its praiseworthy purposes may be achieved.”
The FOIA allows for access to most public records and meetings. The state’s FOIA, a law that is highly regarded across the United States as one of the strongest and most comprehensive, gains greater attention during National Sunshine Week. The annual week in mid-March works to highlight the importance of open and transparent government.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s consumer alert in recognition of National Sunshine Week and to give consumers a greater understanding of the Arkansas FOIA.
“In Arkansas and across the country, the people must be armed with the power of knowledge and encouraged to be active, informed citizens,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “Arkansas has a strong FOIA that helps hold the government accountable and inform citizens about the issues that affect them. As the people’s lawyer, the Attorney General’s Office is committed to protecting the democratic ideal of an open and public government through the FOIA.”
For consumers seeking to gain a greater understanding of the Arkansas FOIA, the Attorney General’s Office joins with a number of other organizations to produce and distribute the Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook. Print copies of the handbook are available upon request from the Attorney General’s Office and electronic copies of the handbook are available on the Attorney General’s website by visiting http://arkansasag.gov/media-center/foia/.
The FOIA gives the public access to public meetings and public records with some exceptions. The Act defines a public record as essentially any writing, sound or video that is kept and reflects the performance or lack of performance of an official function. Some public records are exempt from disclosure, such as personnel records whose disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of person privacy, or those records that are kept as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Requests for records may be made in person or by phone, but most requests are submitted in writing to the custodian of the records. Since most documents fall into the category of being in “active use” or in “storage,” most entities have up to three business days to produce the information requested.
Arkansans also have the right under the FOIA to attend most meetings of governing bodies. Notice of public meetings must be provided to anyone who has asked to be notified, and notice of special meetings must be provided to members of the news media who have requested notice of such meetings. Governing bodies may only enter into closed sessions for a limited number of reasons, one of which is for the purpose of considering employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation of an individual officer or employee.
Consumers who want to learn more about the FOIA can contact the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office at (800) 482-8982 or visit http://arkansasag.gov/media-center/foia/.