Two days after the Little Rock Civil Service Commission signed off on a rule allowing the commission to bar anyone from recording the body’s public hearings, the ban was overturned amid outcry and threatened legal action from local media.
The ban was approved just days before the commission was set to hold an appeal hearing for former Little Rock Police Officer Charles Starks. Starks, who is white, was fired from the force in May for fatally shooting Bradley Blackshire, a black man, during a February traffic stop. (In April, Pulaski County prosecutors announced that they would not charge Starks with a crime in Blackshire’s death.)
The new rule, which went into effect on July 24, 2019, gave the chairman of the Civil Service Commission discretion to bar all photography, video, and audio recording from the commission’s disciplinary appeal hearings. “The new language says the chairman ‘may’ allow broadcasting ‘provided that the participants will not be distracted, nor will the dignity of the proceedings be impaired,’” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
Arkansas has robust Freedom of Information and open meetings laws, but the civil service commission was arguing that it could block recording from this meeting because it was an appeal and thus qualified as a judicial proceeding.
Robert Steinbuch, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the co-author of the state's Arkansas Freedom of Information Act textbook, disagreed with that interpretation of the civil service commission’s role in an interview with the Democrat-Gazette. Steinbuch told the newspaper that, although the commission performs some quasi-judicial roles, it is not actually a judiciary body.
“There’s not one, there’s a series of attorney general opinions that say it is well within the citizen's right to record and videotape," Steinbuch told the newspaper. "This is not new. This is well-established. If it's not an executive session, if it's otherwise an open meeting, a public meeting, then you can record."
On the morning of July 25, photographers and videographers were both ejected and barred from entering the hearing room at City Hall where the commission was meeting to consider Starks’ appeal. These included Rich Newman, a cameraman from KATV, Little Rock’s Sinclair-owned affiliate. Officers from the Little Rock Police Department also escorted two bloggers, Russ Racop of Bad Government In Arkansas and Ean Bordeaux of Corruption Sucks, out of the hearing room after they declined to stop recording, citing their rights under the state Freedom of Information law.
A reporter for the station, Marine Glisovic, raised her objection to the ban in the hearing. “As a media member for Channel Seven I’d like to make a statement on the record that this is in violation of the Freedom of Information Act,” Glisovic said. “I’d like to request that no business be conducted until our corporate attorney can challenge this in court.” Despite this objection, no recording was permitted in the room during the morning session.
MORE: Starks’ attorney requested to ban all recordings of this appeal. While I objected on the record and on behalf of @KATVNews the commission is allowing it—violating Arkansas FOI laws. #arnews #Arpx (photo taken prior to ban request) pic.twitter.com/2PTQ3W6K74— Marine Glisovic KATV (@KATVMarine) July 25, 2019
The Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement decrying the recording ban. “The new rule is bad news for news media and the local community. It also runs afoul of the Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees citizens access to public meetings and public records,” the SPJ statement read.
After consulting with the station’s corporate legal team, KATV hired a local attorney to draft an injunction against the ban. “We let the city know that we planned to file that injunction in the early afternoon if they didn’t rescind that ruling and allow us to be in the hearing,” Nick Genty, KATV’s news director, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
But before KATV filed its injunction, City Attorney Tom Carpenter announced around 3 p.m. that the city had decided to set aside the new rule. "We recommend at this juncture [that] the ban be withdrawn by the commission," Carpenter said, according to the Democrat-Gazette. The previously barred photographers and videographers quickly filed back into the room and began filming.
In an interview with the Tracker, Carpenter said while the rule was defensible under rules set out for trials by the Arkansas Supreme Court, it did not have the backing of city leadership. “Since the commission is appointed by the city, without the city’s approval it didn’t make sense to have the rule,” he said.
News Director Genty said he was glad the ban was lifted without KATV having to file the injunction. “We never want to be the story. We just want to cover the story, that’s all we were asking to do,” he said. “They were treating it as a court of law, but this wasn’t; this was a city civil service commission meeting.”