FOIA: Public access to the truth as important as ever

December 9-15, 2019

By Jay Edwards       


“Public business is the public’s business. The people have the right to know. Freedom of information is their just heritage. Without that the citizens of a democracy have but changed their kings.” Harold L. Cross in his 1953 book, “The People’s Right to Know.”


In 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the state of Arkansas was drafted by what is now the Society of Professional Journalists. State senator Ben Allen, a Pulaski County attorney, and state Representative Leon Holsted, a pharmacist from North Little Rock, were the lead sponsors on the original bill. The senate and the house of representatives of the Arkansas Legislature both approved the bill without one dissenting vote and on Feb. 14, 1967, Governor Rockefeller signed the bill into law as Act 93 of 1967.   


The new law’s first test came a little over two months later in North Little Rock, after the city council adjourned their meeting and moved into the office of Mayor Casey Laman for a private conversation with the mayor and his city attorney, Reed Thompson. The topic was whether or not North Little Rock could legally contest an order from the state’s Public Service Commission.      


Two reporters, Ralph Patrick of the North Little Rock Times and Les Seago of the Arkansas Gazette, attempted to join the private meeting, but were impeded by Laman and Thompson. Both of the newspapermen reminded the uncooperative city officials about the new FOIA, which had no exemption for legislative bodies meeting with their attorneys. Thompson was unmoved and told them to “Go ahead and file your lawsuit.”                                                  


On the federal level, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act came about primarily from the 12-year efforts of U.S. House member John E. Moss, a Democrat from California, who was chairman of the House Government Information Subcommittee. Moss was elected to Congress in 1952, during the Cold War, a time of high level government secrecy. He began lobbying for increased transparency in government after thousands of federal employees were fired for allegedly being communists during the Eisenhower administration. 


When Moss began looking into details and asking for records surrounding those dismissals, the administration refused to cooperate. According to Moss, “The present trend toward government secrecy could end in a dictatorship. The more information that is made available, the greater will be the nation’s security.” Newspaper editors, journalists, educators and scientists were among those who supported Moss’s campaign against government secrecy, while many federal agencies opposed it, arguing that not being able to keep their records secret in certain instances would be detrimental to their work.                   


Before retiring from Congress in 1978, Moss was instrumental in the passage of legislation including the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972 and the Federal Privacy Act of 1974 and was the first member of Congress to propose impeachment proceedings against President Nixon. Although FOIA was designed to increase government transparency, not all information must be made available to the public under the law. Congress set forth nine exemptions that enable federal agencies to withhold records in cases where doing so would be harmful to national security or foreign policy, personal privacy, confidential business information and law enforcement records, among other interests. People have the right to appeal or file a lawsuit if they’re dissatisfied with an agency’s response to a FOIA request.     


In 2016, the federal government received a record 800,000 FOIA requests; the agencies that handled the most requests were the Homeland Security, Justice and Defense departments, along with the National Archives and Records Administration. Some of the more memorable FOIA requests involved J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI files on John Lennon and the Iran Contra Affair emails. Then there is the horrific story of a B-52 bomber that fell from the sky as it headed back to a base in North Carolina.


It happened on Jan. 23, 1961, just three days after JFK’s inauguration. American bombers patrolling the skies were common during the height of the Cold War and on that night, in a routine mission, something went wrong for one of them, which had as its cargo two 3.8-megaton hydrogen bombs, each 260 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. During a midair refueling a large leak developed in the B-52 and tons of fuel were lost in a matter of minutes. Major Walter Tulloch, the pilot, was steering for home when the right wing suddenly sheered from the plane and they went into a tailspin. Tulloch ordered his crew of seven to eject. Five of the men on board parachuted to safety while the other three died in the crash. Emergency crews arrived at the crash scene, 15 miles from the base. They found one of the bombs in a field with its parachute tangled up in tree limbs. Not far was the other bomb, which hit the ground at 700 miles an hour.                                   


The Greensboro Record’s headline read, “Jet carrying atomic weapons crashes,” but the military was able to keep a tight lid on just how close the Eastern Seaboard had really come to a nuclear disaster, stating that there was never a danger of a nuclear explosion. But a declassified report obtained under the FOIA said otherwise, as investigative reporter Eric Schlosser revealed in his 2013 book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.” The secret two-page document obtained through the FOIA Schlosser referenced was written in 1969 by Parker F. Jones, the supervisor of the nuclear weapons safety department at Sandia National Laboratories. “One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe,” Jones wrote.                     


As for the 1967 event back in Mayor Casey Laman’s office, it would end up garnering the official title of W. F. Laman, et al. v. Robert S. McCord, et al, as the lawsuit that would eventually find its way to the Arkansas Supreme Court, on appeal. The Times reporter, Patrick, who was barred from the mayor’s office, and his editor-in-chief, Robert McCord, had done just what city attorney Thompson dared them to do. 


The newspapers were represented by Phil Carroll and the court’s decision, written by Associate Justice George Rose Smith, was handed down on Oct. 21, 1968. “As a rule,” Justice Smith wrote, “statutes enacted for the public benefit are to be interpreted most favorably to the public. We have no hesitation in asserting our conviction that the Freedom of Information Act was passed wholly in the public interest and is to be liberally interpreted to the end that its praiseworthy purposes may be achieved. The language of the act is so clear, so positive, that there is hardly any need for interpretation.” Smith added the city council was a governing body and the closed session in the mayor’s office was a meeting: “How, then, can it be said that the closed session was not a violation of the statute?” he wrote.  


In his piece about the suit, Ernie Dumas wrote, “In numerous cases since the 1968 decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court has cited the language of Laman v. McCord in striking down efforts by local governments and state agencies to evade the open meetings and records provisions. The decision provided one of the strongest precedents in Arkansas judicial history and rendered the Arkansas law one of the strongest Freedom of Information laws in the country.”     


Sources: Arkansas Encyclopedia: Laman vs. McCord by Ernie Dumas & Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by Tom Larimer; Whoops by Gabe Paoletti; Document Reveals 1961 Nuclear Close-Call over North Carolina by Christopher Klein   


PHOTO CAPTIONS:  (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism) 


1. Under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Arkansans can access public records and public meetings of governmental agencies, with some exemptions. This act carries such significance because citizens have a right to know public information. Voyage back in time to witness how the FOIA came about and how important it is in today’s society.


2. The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is one of the most comprehensive and strongest open-records and open-meetings laws in the country. The Attorney General partners with the Arkansas Press Association and other entities to publish a “Freedom of Information Act Handbook” after every regular session of the General Assembly.