Arkansas SPJ condemns Civil Service Commission’s broadcasting ban

Arkansas SPJ condemns Civil Service Commission’s broadcasting ban

Arkansas Pro Chapter
Society of Professional Journalists

For immediate release:

The Little Rock Civil Service Commission raised First Amendment concerns Tuesday by approving a new rule that allows its chairman to ban any means of recording during public hearings, and during a hearing for a fired police officer Thursday, officials ejected at least two people from the room for recording the proceedings.

As an organization that supports and protects the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, the Arkansas Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists condemns the commission’s decision.

The new rule is bad news for news media and the local community. It also runs afoul of the Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees citizens access to public meetings and public records. Several attorneys general have opined that citizens have the right to record public meetings.

The timing of the adoption of the new rule is also suspicious, coming as it did two days before the hearing of fired police officer Charles Starks, who ignited public outrage after fatally shooting Bradley Blackshire of Little Rock. Commissioners maintain the timing is coincidental.

While the new rule states that the chairman “may” allow broadcasting that does not distract participants or impair courtroom proceedings, it still goes too far.

Since most Little Rock residents will not be able to attend the Starks hearing, community members will turn to the media for updates about the case. The broadcasting ban will hinder news outlets’ ability to disseminate information about this and other public hearings, thus restricting both media and public access.

While restrictions on court proceedings are sometimes necessary, effectively prohibiting taping of these public hearings places an undue burden on news gathering and inappropriately restricts access to public information.

It is worth noting that the new state law, which took effect Wednesday, July 24, requires public bodies to record their public sessions and to make those records available to citizens. While the law doesn’t address citizen recording of meetings, it shows lawmakers’ intent that public meetings be accessible to all.

We urge the Little Rock Civil Service Commission to reconsider and rescind its rule allowing its chairman to ban recording and broadcast of public hearings.

Signed on behalf of the Arkansas Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists,

Jennifer Ellis, president
Sarah DeClerk, vice president

Paper Says PCSSD Leader Violated FOI – Update

The publisher of Stephens Media newspapers in central Arkansas has filed a criminal complaint against the superintendant of the Pulaski County Special School District over an alleged FOI violation.

Dennis Byrd (who has served as the state’s Sunshine Chair in the past) says that Charles Hopson didn’t turn over copies of text messages to and from his cell phone in response to a May 2 request.

The district says the messages are on Hopson’s personal phone, and it doesn’t have access to them.

Lots more detail here.

Update: The prosecutor says he won’t take action on the request, because of a doubt over whether the FOI applies to the employee’s personal phone in this case.

FOI Coalition Hears From A.G. McDaniel

The Arkansas FOI Coalition met Tuesday morning to review the status of the FOIA after the recent legislative session and to hear from Attorney General Dustin McDaniel about his activities to publicize the law.

McDaniel is conducting several “FOIA roadshows” around the state this summer to education citizens and officials about open records and open meetings.

The office particularly wants to reach newly-elected officials who may not be familiar with their obligations under the act.

The coalition also discussed the recent legislative session, which saw few significant changes to the FOIA, with the exception of SB345 by Sen. Percy Malone: “To Establish a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.”

That measure created the 19th exemption to the FOIA by closing the records of a prescription drug database.  The coalition argued unsuccessfully that personal health information is already exempt under HIPPA, and other aggregate data should be public.  The bill was signed by Governor Beebe on March 17th.

The coalition supported three bills favorable to open government that also become law, including the Open Checkbook Act and a proposal to add improvement districts to entities covered by the FOIA.