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Arkansas group rallies to safeguard freedom of information laws by enshrining them in state constitution

Governor Sanders' proposed bill to limit government transparency, a group is seeking to safeguard Arkansas' freedom of information laws. (Photo KATV){p}{/p}
Governor Sanders' proposed bill to limit government transparency, a group is seeking to safeguard Arkansas' freedom of information laws. (Photo KATV)

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After last week's clash at a special legislative session over Governor Sanders' proposed bill to limit government transparency in Arkansas, a group is being formed with the goal of firmly establishing the state's freedom of information laws in the Arkansas constitution.

Last week, an overwhelming outcry from Arkansans led supporters of the governor's bill to capitulate and remove its most controversial sections, but the fight over Arkansas' freedom of information laws may not be over yet.

They may not come right ahead at a full-frontal assault like this time, but they'll keep nibbling around the edges to get rid of it," said Little Rock attorney and public policy advocate David Couch.

Widespread bipartisan opposition successfully fended off last week's unprecedented effort by the governor and her supporters at the Capitol to reduce government transparency with an all-in-one bill.

"It was billed to—I think a lot of legislators and to the public very early on—as being about the governor's security. It was about much, much, much more than that," said former State Rep. Nate Bell, (I) District 20.

However, the potential for future attempts to seriously limit Arkansas' freedom of information laws is still on the table, something made clear by bill sponsors.

We believe the other sections of this policy that we've been debating over the last few days should continue to be debated because it's very important," said State Sen. Bart Hester, (R) District 33, among the primary sponsors of the bill.

"He indicated that they are going to bring a lot of those provisions back in the near future," Bell said, "and we just want to take that off the table."

We want to make it clear that Arkansans have a right to access public documents, and that the legislature is not allowed to tamper with that," Bell emphasized.

Bell and Couch, along with others, are forming a group to firmly establish Arkansas' freedom of information laws in the state constitution with an amendment to ensure that there are no future threats to government transparency in Arkansas.

As a result of that assault on our Freedom of Information Act, people all across the state from the Right and the Left and the middle have banded together in an effort to protect our Freedom of Information Act. And the way we're going to do that is, we're going to draft one—we're in the process of drafting it now—we're going to make it the best, the gold standard Freedom of Information Act. We're going to enshrine it in our constitution so the General Assembly, the politicians cannot mess with it anymore," Couch said.

The group is in its formative stages but already has heavy hitters in its ranks.

"Former cabinet secretaries, ton of former elected officials—we're going to have an A-list ballot question committee. And we're going to do this right," Bell asserted.

The group said it intends to hold a press conference in October to introduce its mission to Arkansans officially.

Couch said the plan is to have their amendment to the state's constitution on the 2024 ballot.

The group said that the amendment's drafting will be transparent and informed by public input.

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