In my previous work as a community activist (not to be confused with community organizer), I have spent a great deal of time submitting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to city and county officials. As I have uncovered interesting facts and consequently broadcast them, I have received various responses from folks that have led me to believe that not everyone is fully aware of their rights as Arkansas citizens.
What is the point of having rights if you do not know what they are and therefore cannot exercise them? There is none, as far as I can tell. So here is a quick primer on your rights to information, given by God and protected by the Arkansas Freedom Of Information Act of 1967.
Your rights under Arkansas FOI:
- You have the right to inspect and copy all public records during the regular business hours of the custodian of the records (with a few reasonable exemptions for medical, personal, and otherwise sensitive information, etc.)
- You have the right to make your request via telephone, mail, fax, or email.
- If you make a request for personnel records, the custodian of the records must confirm receipt of your request within 24 hours and let you know whether or not your requested information is releasable under FOI law.
- If the person you contact is not the custodian for the requested information, they are required to notify you who the appropriate custodian is, if they know or can easily find out.
- You have a right to receive your information within 3 business days.
- You have the right to “reasonable access to public records and reasonable comforts and facilities for the full exercise of the right to inspect and copy those records.”
- You also have a right to receive the information in “any medium in which the record is readily available or in any format to which it is readily convertible with the custodian’s existing software.”
- The fee for acquiring the information may not exceed the actual cost of production, excluding personnel costs. Combine this point with the previous point and this is very important: if you request the information in electronic format, and the information is already in electronic format or readily convertible, for which there is conceivably no production cost other than personnel, the custodian must provide those records in that format–at no cost, assuming the request does not take more than 2 hours to fulfill. (If it does take more than 2 hours to fulfill, they can charge you, but no more than the salary of the lowest paid employee who has the necessary skill to fulfill the request. They must also be able to verify that the task took more than two hours.)
- Even if there are costs, the custodian of the records can waive the fee if they determine the records have been requested for a noncommercial purpose and the waiver of the fee benefits the public interest–they do not have to charge you under state law, although they may tell you they do.
- Your request cannot be denied based on the fact that the requested information is intermingled with exempted information–the burden is on the custodian to extract the information that is subject to release.
- If it is necessary to untangle the exempt information from the nonexempt, the custodian must bear the expense–they cannot charge you for the additional costs.
- If your request for personnel or evaluation information is denied, you have the right to request an opinion from the Attorney General, who is then required to explain whether the information can be withheld.
- You also have a right to appeal to a court of law.
- If you prevail in court, you may retain your attorney’s fees.
In my dealings with city and county officials, I have often been deterred from obtaining information that I had a legal right to access because I did not fully understand my rights. In fact, a former mayor of my city used to try to charge citizens over $100 for copies of our city budget–which, of course, was readily available in electronic format. $100 was certainly a deterrent and it kept many good citizens from learning how their tax money was being spent.
The Arkansas FOI law is an invaluable asset to defenders of liberty. Knowing your rights is essential to protecting them. For more information, read the full text of the Arkansas Freedom Of Information Act, review various Attorney General opinions, and check out this great resource from Sunshine Review.