With all eyes turned toward national politics, it is easy to lose sight of the threats to democracy we face here in Arkansas, especially when it comes to ensuring government remains open and accountable to the people it serves.
Federal Court Judge Damon Keith famously wrote that "democracies die behind closed doors." After all, we can't hold our government officials accountable if we don't know what they're up to in the first place.
Secrecy and silence are antithetical to democracy, and for nearly 100 years the ACLU has been fighting for greater transparency in government and for the people's right to speak out in protest if they don't like what they see. That is why Arkansans should be alarmed that while open-government advocates nationwide were celebrating Sunshine Week, lawmakers here in Arkansas continued their all-out assault on freedom of information and the freedom of speech.
No fewer than 10 bills have been proposed to weaken Arkansas' Freedom of Information law, a vital check on government power that was once a model for the country. For example, under a bill that became law last week without the governor's signature, our Capitol law enforcement will now become a secret police force--with no obligation to disclose any information about its operations or personnel. A similar measure has been proposed for police on college campuses.
While lawmakers are shrouding their own activities in secrecy, they are attempting to silence dissent, suppress the right to protest, and even weaken the oversight authority of the courts. On March 13, the Senate passed SB550, which would curtail the freedom of speech by making mass picketing a Class A misdemeanor. Another bill still pending (HB1665/SB751) would allow companies to bankrupt whistle-blowers and investigators who provide the public with evidence of unethical or illegal activities. There is even a proposal (SJR8) to erode the separation of powers by giving the Legislature rulemaking authority over the Supreme Court.
Taken together, this is a systematic attempt to undermine the protections our founders put in place to prevent the government from trampling on our individual rights. "We're in charge now," one legislator said recently, displaying an unfortunate but all-too-common misconception among officials who have lost sight of what they've been elected to do and who they've been elected to serve.
This is a democracy. It's the people who are in charge, and the ACLU will not stand by while they are silenced or kept in the dark.
The good news is that here in Arkansas and across the country people are mobilizing in defense of the Constitution and the rule of law like never before: donating, volunteering, demonstrating, and running for office. Lawmakers here in Arkansas should take note. Voters are paying attention. And the millions of people who took to the streets in January will be heading to the ballot box next year with their constitutional rights in mind.