LITTLE ROCK — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed a provision of Virginia law granting public access to government information only to residents of that state bolsters a similar limitation in Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act.
But one official said Tuesday a proliferation of information on government websites has greatly diminished FOI requests from out of state in recent years, and state FOI advocates said the state-only limitation can easily be circumvented by getting someone in Arkansas to request the information.
In a unanimous decision Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government agencies in Virginia were only required to respond to FOI requests from residents of that state. The decision upheld a federal appeals court’s ruling.
Arkansas, like Virginia and six other states — Alabama, Delaware, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee — has a similar provision.
Ryan Owsley, assistant Arkansas attorney general, said the high court’s decision "essentially upholds" the provision in Arkansas’ FOIA.
"The effect of the case is to insulate Arkansas’ citizen restriction from constitutional challenge, at least on these … grounds that are before the court," said Owsley, a presenter in Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s FOIA "Road Show."
"I’m glad to hear that," said Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, when told about the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.
Larimer said many people in Arkansas were unaware of that provision in the Arkansas FOI law and he was glad it was addressed by the Supreme Court.
The APA executive, who also gives an FOI presentation with officials from the attorney general’s office in local meetings around the state, said he had noticed that McDaniel’s representatives were no longer including the residency provision in its presentations because of concerns that it might not be constitutional.
Owsley said the decision to not mention the residency provision occurred after a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled that a similar provision in Delaware’s FOI law was unconstitutional. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in that case was the only ruling on the issues between 2006 and the end of last year, he said.
"So up until right before Christmas, when the 4th circuit considered the Virginia restriction on which the Supreme Court just ruled … there wasn’t any case law. It was doubtful, there just wasn’t much case law," Owsley said, adding that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Virginia case specifically said the opinion applied in the Delaware case.
Pulaski County Tax Assessor Janet Troutman Ward said Tuesday that the number of out-of-state requests made to her office has dropped considerably in recent years because of the amount of public information from her office now available online.
"I’d say we had one out-of-state request last year," Ward said, adding that the number of requests by Arkansas residents also has dropped by more than 50 percent in recent years to less than 25 annually.
"With everything out there, we just don’t get as many as we use to," she said.
Larimer and Brenda Blagg, a member of the Arkansas FOIA Coalition, said Arkansas’ FOI law does not prohibit agencies from giving FOI-requested information to people who live out-of-state, it just gives them discretion.
They also said that despite the provision, it’s not too difficult for someone outside Arkansas to get public information.
"People from out-of-state routinely find ways around it by involving some citizen of Arkansas to request records," Blagg said. "I mean, it doesn’t really limit them from getting the information but it is intended to be a law for Arkansas citizens."
Blagg said she suspected the state Legislature, when drafting the state FOI law in 1967, decided to include the provision as a "reaction to the volume of work that public officials were expected to handle."
"The law was written by Arkansas legislators for Arkansas people and there’s not a great desire to expand it from that point," she said.