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Arkansas Is Poised to Shield Public-College Police From Records Requests

Arkansas legislators have overwhelmingly voted to provide the campus security forces of public colleges and schools with broad exemptions from the state’s freedom-of-information law.

The unusual measure, which the State Senate voted on Tuesday to approve and send on to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, declares a host of records kept by campus police and security offices at public colleges to be confidential and exempt from open-records requests. They include any information that, if disclosed, “could reasonably be expected to be detrimental to the public safety,” including records dealing with campuses’ emergency or security plans or assessments of risks. Also covered is information related to the size or composition of the security forces employed by public colleges.

The Associated Press reported last month that the University of Arkansas began advocating for the measure in response to a 2015 request for information on the police officers assigned to a football game. The request was made by an Associated Press photographer who later said she had submitted it because she worried about encountering a police officer whom she had previously accused of rape, and who, she feared, might have been hired by the university under contract. She had not stated a reason for her request at the time, however, and it came just days after coordinated terrorist attacks had caused carnage in France.

The legislative supporters of the Arkansas bill argued that it was needed to help shield public colleges and schools from such planned attacks. Critics argued that it would prevent the public from scrutinizing campus security efforts and learning crucial information such as the numbers of racial-minority members employed or apprehended by campus security forces.

“We’re not aware of any other state that gives targeted exemptions to school and college police for this sort of information,” said Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which tracks such legislation. If anything, Mr. LoMonte said, states have been moving in the direction of requiring campus security forces to be more open, with a half dozen having passed laws that extended the reach of open-records laws to private colleges’ police departments.

“You can readily find out how many officers are employed in New York or Chicago, and it’s hard to believe that Arkansas State University is a higher-value terrorist target than midtown Manhattan, or that a terrorist organization is going to use public records to decide how many terrorists to dispatch to Arkansas State,” Mr. LoMonte said.

Governor Hutchinson, a Republican, let a similar bill, providing public-records law exemptions to the police at the State Capitol, pass into law without his signature this week.

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