School Freedom of Information Act Exemption Clears Senate

Feb 10, 2017

State Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch). File photo.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

The public would have less access to information about public schools and colleges under a bill passed by the Arkansas Senate. State Senator Gary Stubblefield, a Republican from Branch in northwest Arkansas, presented his bill on Thursday. He said exempting security information from the Freedom of Information Act is a necessary safeguard in dangerous times.

“We live in a totally different world than it was 50 years ago. We wouldn’t even be dealing with bills like this in 1950, 1960 when we were putting .22’s and our gun racks in our trucks,” said Stubblefield on the Senate floor. “It’s a different culture so we have to do things now that we would never have dreamed of doing.”

However, there were concerns from within his own party that the FOIA exemption is too broad. Senator Jake Files of Fort Smith worried the exemption is so broad that schools could withhold basic information from parents, like how many school resource officers are on a campus. He mused a school could theoretically hire 30 former Green Berets and be able to keep it a secret from the public.

Republican Trent Garner of El Dorado also expressed concern the exemption is too broad. He said it might amount to a “backdoor way” for schools “to get out of FOIA requests.”

Stubblefield thought such concerns were overstated, “This bill protects the most sensitive security information held by colleges and K-12. It does not exempt all security information it only exempts information that can be reasonably detrimental to public safety.”

The measure ended up passing with wide support in a 24 to 5 vote. But before the final tally, in an initial roll call, it only garnered the bare majority of 18 in the 35 member chamber. Upon seeing it would pass six members flipped from Not Voting to yes. It now heads to the Senate.

Wesley Brown with Talk Business and Politics reports the Arkansas Press Association had serious concerns about the bill and that Stubblefield violated a pledge to hold the bill until the organization could comment.

TB&P reports comments from Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Tom Larimer.

“He advised us he would not run it in committee without telling us and we’ve been staffing the (Senate Education) meeting just in case,” Larimer said. “On yesterday, we had two other bills in two other committees and we didn’t have anybody in (Senate Education) and he saw his opportunity to run that bill without us there and got it out of committee.

“We maintain our opposition to (SB 12), which is just another in several bills working their way through the legislature that would weaken the FOIA considerably,” Larimer continued. “It caught us by surprise … because we took him by his word and obviously that was a mistake.”

Attempts to reach Sen. Stubblefield by email and phone concerning Larimer’s remarks on Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful.