Across US, lawmakers chip away at public’s access to records – Orange County Register

By Andrew DeMillo and Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. >> In February, Arkansas lawmakers marked the 50-year anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act with a resolution calling it “a shining example of open government” that had ensured access to vital public records for generations.

They spent the following weeks debating and, in many cases approving, new exemptions to the law in what critics called an unprecedented attack on the public’s right to know.

When they were finished, universities could keep secret all information related to their police forces, including their size and the names and salaries of officers. Public schools could shield a host of facts related to security, including the identities of teachers carrying concealed weapons and emergency response plans. And state Capitol police could withhold anything they believed could be “detrimental to public safety” if made public.

While hailed by lawmakers as commonsense steps to thwart would-be terrorists or mass shooters, the new laws left grandmother Annie Bryant worried that she and other parents could now be kept in the dark about how schools protect kids.

“I don’t want to be overly aggressive to the point that we block out avenues and end up robbing parents, robbing students of information about their safety,” said Bryant, who lives in Pine Bluff and spoke out against the school security secrecy during a legislative hearing.

Lawmakers across the country introduced and debated dozens of bills during this year’s legislative sessions that would close or limit public access to a wide range of government records and meetings, according to a review by The Associated Press and numerous state press associations.

Most of those proposals did not become law, but freedom-of-information advocates in some states said they were struck by the number of bills they believed would harm the public interest, and they are bracing for more fights next year.

Nebraska lawmakers debated whether to keep secret the identity of the suppliers of lethal-injection drugs used in executions. The California Legislature rushed through a measure that shielded from the public the emergency action plans required for potentially unsafe dams — an idea that arose after nearly 200,000 people were forced to evacuate following a spillway failure at the state’s second-largest reservoir. Texas again considered a plan that would effectively shut down its public records law to any requesters…

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