Monday, March 20, 2017

The University of Arkansas's attack on public records law

Posted By on Mon, Mar 20, 2017 at 9:35 AM

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Robert Steinbuch, a UALR law professor who has written a book on the Freedom of Information Act, writes here to dismantle arguments made by University of Arkansas counsel Joanne Maxey in defense of the UA-written bill to wreck the FOI law by putting attorney-client discussions and work product outside public reach.

Designate just about anything work product and the public can't see it. Steinbuch explains in detail, but I'd prefer to focus on the big picture.

UA has ALWAYS been an enemy of freedom of information. The system and Fayetteville campus will turn out a phalanx of lawyers to defeat the little citizen who dares to challenge them. The Arkansas Times learned that when they filled the courtroom with $300-an-hour lawyers to defeat our effort to find out what promises they'd made to the Walton family in return for a $300 million gift. (A lot, it turned out.)

That case created the laughable "competitive advantage" exemption that UA claims for its fund-raising activities.  That phrase was written into law to protect PRIVATE business (I happen to have been a plaintiff in a critical case on the issue, over secrecy of economic development commission files), not public institutions. UA has perversely turned the notion on its head.

UA hides it's major fund-raising operations, the UA Foundation and the Razorback Foundation, behind veils of secrecy. (These secrecy tricks have been challenged with some success in other states, because the idea that such foundations operate independently of the public institution with which they coordinate is ludicrous on its face.) They also contest FOI requests as unduly burdensome and have gotten some home judicial cooking on the point.

In short, you already have to be rich and lucky to pry information from UA . With this law change, even money won't help.

The legislature isn't very kindly disposed to higher education these days, which otherwise might cause UA some problems on this sunshine-blotting proposal. But they rank higher with lawmakers than the media. The legislature is gleefully attacking the FOI law on multiple fronts. Lawmakers tend to forget that the FOI law is not a media law, but a public law. Legislation like this punishes the public at large, not just some reporter or columnist they don't like.

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