Sanders signs bill to modify Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act

Toned-down Act 7 stresses safety for top state officials

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders hands a pen to Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, after signing the FOIA bill on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. 
More photos at Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders hands a pen to Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, after signing the FOIA bill on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. More photos at Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed legislation Thursday that will restrict access to records on her security detail, concluding a chaotic four-day special session that renewed debates over Arkansas' open records and meeting law.

The legislation signed by Sanders into law on Thursday is a scaled-back version of a more ambitious proposal to overhaul Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act, one of the more permissive sunshine laws in the nation, transparency advocates said.

Senate Bill 10, now Act 7, exempts from the open-records law documents related to the governor's Arkansas State Police security detail and "records that reflect the planning or provision of security services provided" to constitutional officers, Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges.

Notably, the law is retroactive to June 1, 2022, something that Arkansas State Police Director Mike Hagar said was necessary in order to cover documents that included the planning for Sanders' five-member protection detail, which began six months before the Republican governor took office.

"We protected the police officers who protect our constitutional officers and my family in keeping their security information and tactics exempt from Freedom of Information Act disclosure," Sanders said at a news conference Thursday at the Capitol.

Hours earlier, the Arkansas House of Representatives had passed Act 7, the third and only successful attempt to amend the Freedom of Information Act during the special session. Until Tuesday evening, Sanders had called for the state Legislature to pass a bill that would have exempted records that go beyond just those related to the governor's security.

However, after bipartisan public pressure against the bill grew, support for overhauling the Freedom of Information Act fell through and Sanders agreed to a scaled-down version of the bill that only addressed documents related to safety.

A records request by attorney and blogger Matt Campbell sparked the renewed debate over the Freedom of Information Act. Campbell sought communications and records on expenditures from Arkansas State Police on security for the governor and first gentleman Bryan Sanders.

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, the House sponsor of the legislation, said because of Sanders' high-profile status, having served as press secretary under former President Donald J. Trump, the first-term governor faced a higher security threat than previous governors.

"The fundamental reason that we have executive protection is for individuals who may be exposed to a higher level of personal risk because of the job that they have to do, and that certainly applies to the governor," Ray said. "And with no offense to any of our previous governors, I can't think of one, at least in recent memory, that was a household name the way our current governor is. If you follow politics in America, everyone knows who Sarah Huckabee Sanders is."

Act 7 passed on a 82-15 vote in the House and a 29-2 vote in the Senate.

Clarke Tucker of Little Rock was the lone Democratic senator to vote in favor of the bill.

Tucker, an opponent of prior bills to change the open-records law, opted to join Republicans in voting for SB10, saying Wednesday, "I told my colleagues that if we had a security-only bill then I would vote for it, and I want to be a man of my word."

"If I were writing this bill, I would write it differently," Tucker added Wednesday. "In my personal opinion I think it's probably a little bit broader than it should be. However, when it comes to the safety and security of the governor and her family, I think it's important to err on the side of their security."

Democrats Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Fred Love of Mabelvale voted against it, while Democrat Reginald Murdock of Marianna voted present.

Democrats Sens. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock and Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff and Republican Alan Clark of Lonsdale were excused from voting.

Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forrest, was recorded as voting "yes" on the bill but submitted a letter to the Senate secretary saying he had intended to vote "no." The letter does not change King's vote in the vote totals.

Democrats were responsible for all 15 votes against the bill in the House. The only House Democrat to vote in favor of the bill was Mark Perry of Jacksonville.

Kenneth Ferguson, D-Pine Bluff, Steve Magie, D-Conway, and Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, did not vote.

The law also will require Arkansas State Police to submit a quarterly report to lawmakers detailing expenses related to the governor's protection detail, something supporters said offers a level of transparency that wasn't there previously.

During House debate Thursday, Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, said the bill went beyond just security records that protect the governor. Collins said the law was an improvement over previous proposals but it still was written too broadly.

"This bill has been presented as the security-only bill, and if it were just a security-only bill I would happily support it," Collins said.

While the law was endorsed by the Arkansas Press Association and the Arkansas Broadcasters Association, the scaled-down bill aimed at security remained too broad for some.

"We're disappointed how changes to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act are being done during a rushed special session and that there's an emergency clause attached to it," the Arkansas Press Women organization said in a message posted Thursday on Twitter. "The law may date back to 1967 but legislators have tried to modify it ever since in regular sessions."

The first attempt to amend Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act included a "deliberative process" exemption that would have shielded records "that comprise part of the process by which governmental decisions and policies are formulated" from disclosure.

It also included a provision to exempt documents prepared by an attorney from disclosure, something the Republican governor said was needed so the state wouldn't be forced to release its legal strategy before discovery.

In addition, the bill would have made it harder for people to recover legal fees for lawsuits filed under the Freedom of Information Act, something that critics said would hurt those who couldn't afford attorneys otherwise.

A second bill aimed at amending the Freedom of Information Act would have shielded "records reflecting communications between the Governor or his or her staff and the secretary of a cabinet-level department."

Sanders said the changes to Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act were needed to make government more efficient, claiming activists were using the law to slow down her agenda.

However, fellow Republicans raised arguments against the governor's proposed changes, arguing the sunshine law was a useful and essential tool for government accountability. The Republican committees of Saline and Pulaski counties released statements against a previous bill to change the Freedom of Information Act.

Sanders has not given up on trying to tackle amending the law in the future, she said Thursday. Senate President Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said a Freedom of Information Act working group, formed by Attorney General Tim Griffin, will discuss changes to the law.

"We've made it very clear that our number one priority was the safety component within the FOIA legislation," Sanders said. "That's part of governing, you come in, we got exactly what we really needed that is critical. We are not going to stop continuing to fight for more government efficiency and effectiveness, and I think this is just the beginning of that process."

How lawmakers voted on SB10

Here is how members of the Arkansas Legislature voted on Senate Bill 10, a measure to amend the Freedom of Information Act of 1967; to make certain security-related records exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act of 1967; to require that the Division of Arkansas State Police provide to the Legislative Council quarterly reports identifying certain expenses designated by month and budget category; to declare an emergency and for other purposes.


YEAS: (29)

Boyd (R, Fort Smith)

Bryant (R, Rogers)

Caldwell (R, Wynne)

Crowell (R, Magnolia)

Davis (R, Russellville)

Dees (R, Siloam Springs)

Dismang (R, Beebe)

Dotson (R, Bentonville)

English (R, North Little Rock)

Flippo (R, Bull Shoals)

Gilmore (R, Crossett)

K. Hammer (R, Benton)

Hester (R, Cave Springs)

Hickey (R, Texarkana)

Hill (R, Cabot)

Irvin (R, Mountain View)

B. Johnson (R, Corning)

M. Johnson (R, Little Rock)

*King (R, Green Forest)

McKee (R, Pearcy)

Payton (R, Wilburn)

Penzo (R, Springdale)

Petty (R, Van Buren)

Rice (R, Waldron)

Stone (R, Camden)

Stubblefield (R, Branch)

Sullivan (R, Jonesboro)

Tucker (D, Little Rock)

Wallace (R, Leachville)

NAYS (2)

Leding (D, Fayetteville)

Love (D, Mabelvale)


Murdock (D, Marianna)


Chesterfield (D, Little Rock)

Clark (R, Lonsdale)

Flowers (D, Pine Bluff)

*Sen. Bryan King was recorded as voting “yes” for the bill, but submitted a letter to the Senate secretary saying he had intended to vote “no” on the bill. The letter does not change King’s vote or the vote totals.


YEAS: (82)

Achor (R, Maumelle)

Andrews (R, Camden)

Barker (R, Smackover)

Beaty Jr. (R, Crossett)

Beck (R, Center Ridge)

Bentley (R, Perryville)

M. Berry (R, Ozark)

S. Berry (R, Dover)

Breaux (R, Holiday Island)

Brooks (R, Little Rock)

K. Brown (R, Sherwood)

M. Brown (R, Conway)

Burkes (R, Lowell)

Joey Carr (R, Blytheville)

John Carr (R, Rogers)

Cavenaugh (R, Walnut Ridge)

Cooper (R, Romance)

Cozart (R, Hot Springs)

Crawford (R, Fort Smith)

Dalby (R, Texarkana)

Duffield (R, Russellville)

Duke (R, Gravette)

Eaves (R, Searcy)

Eubanks (R, Paris)

Evans (R, Cabot)

C. Fite (R, Van Buren)

L. Fite (R, Benton)

Fortner (R, Yellville)

Furman (R, Benton)

Gazaway (R, Paragould)

Gonzales (R, Okolona)

Gramlich (R, Fort Smith)

Haak (R, Siloam Springs)

Hawk (R, Bryant)

D. Hodges (R, Springdale)

G. Hodges (R, Centerton)

Holcomb (R, Pine Bluff)

Hollowell (R, Forrest City)

Jean (R, Magnolia)

Ladyman (R, Ladyman)

Long (R, Bradord)

Lundstrum (R, Elm Springs)

Lynch (R, Lonoke)

Maddox (R, Mena)

Mayberry (R, Hensley)

McAlindon (R, Centerton)

McClure (R, Malvern)

McCollum (R, Bentonville)

McElroy (R, Tillar)

McGrew (R, Hot Springs)

B. McKenzie (R, Rogers)

McNair (R, Harrison)

Meeks (R, Greenbrier)

Miller (R, Heber Springs)

Milligan (R, Lake City)

J. Moore (R, Clarendon)

K. Moore (R, Lincoln)

Painter (R, Mountain Home)

Pearce (R, Batesville)

Perry (D, Jacksonville)

Pilkington (R, Knoxville)

Puryear (R, Hindsville)

Ray (R, Maumelle)

Richmond (R, Harvey)

Rose (R, Van Buren)

Rye (R, Trumann)

Schulz (R, Cave City)

R. Scott Richardson (R), Bentonville

Steimel (R, Pocahontas)

Tosh (R, Jonesboro)

Underwood (R, Cave Springs)

Unger (R, Springdale)

Vaught (R, Horatio)

Walker (R, Horseshoe Bend)

Wardlaw (R, Hermitage)

Warren (R,Hot Springs)

Watson (R, Hope)

Wing (R, North Little Rock)

Womack (R, Arkadelphia)

Wooldridge (R, Marmaduke)

Wooten (R, Beebe)

M. Shepherd (R, El Dorado)

NAYS (15)

Allen (D, Little Rock)

Clowney (D, Fayetteville)

Collins (D, Little Rock)

Ennett (D, Little Rock)

Ferguson (D, West Memphis)

Flowers (D, Pine Bluff)

Garner (D, Fayetteville)

Hudson (D, Little Rock)

McCullough (D, Little Rock)

Nicks (D, Marion)

J. Richardson (D, Fort Smith)

Scott (D, North Little Rock)

T. Shephard (D, Little Rock)

Springer (D, Little Rock)

Whitaker (D, Fayetteville)


Ferguson (D, Pine Bluff)

Johnson (R, Greenwood)

Magie (D, Conway)

  photo  Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders hands a pen to Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, at the state Capitol on Thursday after signing legislation making changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

  Gallery: Final Day of the Special Session

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