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W. F. Laman, et al. v. Robert S. McCord, et al. was a 1968 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court that established the framework for interpreting the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in ways that favored public access to meetings and government papers. The lawsuit leading to the decision of the Supreme Court was filed only weeks after the Arkansas General Assembly enacted the FOIA. The law gave the public and the media the right to examine and copy public records and to be present whenever governmental bodies met. The unanimous opinion used unusually strong language in condemning a violation of the new act at a closed meeting of the city council of North Little Rock (Pulaski County) and rejecting the legal claims of the city’s attorneys in defense of its actions. Since the law was enacted for the public benefit, the court asserted, it must always be interpreted liberally to carry out its aims to give the public access to the workings of government.
In numerous cases since the 1968 decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court has cited the language of Laman v. McCord in striking down efforts by local governments and state agencies to evade the open meetings and records provisions. The decision provided one of the strongest precedents in Arkansas judicial history and rendered the Arkansas law one of the strongest Freedom of Information laws in the country.
The FOIA was drafted in 1966 by Sigma Delta Chi (now the Society of Professional Journalists), a national organization of journalists with a chapter in Arkansas. Both houses of the legislature approved the bill without a dissenting vote, and Governor Winthrop Rockefeller signed it into law as Act 93 of 1967 on February 14, 1967.
Nine weeks later, a meeting of the North Little Rock City Council adjourned, and the council members went into the office of Mayor William F. “Casey” Laman to talk privately with the city attorney, Reed Thompson, about the city’s chances of legally contesting an order of the state Public Service Commission. Two newspaper reporters—Ralph Patrick, managing editor of the North Little Rock Times, and Les Seago of the Arkansas Gazette—tried to enter the meeting but were barred by Laman and Thompson. The reporters cited the new FOIA, which had no exemption for legislative bodies meeting with their attorneys, but Thompson said, “Go ahead and file your lawsuit.”
Patrick and his newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Robert S. McCord, filed the suit. Thompson and another attorney for the city, Leon B. Catlett, the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, argued that attorney-client privilege—a common-law doctrine that had been embedded in the statutes a century earlier—protected a closed meeting of a city council and its attorney. A governmental body that is about to enter litigation should be able to protect its interests by not divulging strategies discussed with its attorneys, they said.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Warren E. Wood agreed with them, and the two newspapermen, represented by Phillip Carroll, the state’s leading press lawyer, appealed to the Supreme Court. Its decision, written by Associate Justice George Rose Smith, came down on October 21, 1968.
Smith first rejected the city’s contention that the law was a penal statute and thus had to be interpreted very narrowly. “As a rule,” Justice Smith wrote, “statutes enacted for the public benefit are to be interpreted most favorably to the public.” He continued, in language that would be cited by attorneys and the Supreme Court in case after case: “We have no hesitation in asserting our conviction that the Freedom of Information Act was passed wholly in the public interest and is to be liberally interpreted to the end that its praiseworthy purposes may be achieved. The language of the act is so clear, so positive, that there is hardly any need for interpretation.” Reciting the language of the law, Smith said the city council was a governing body and the closed session in the mayor’s office was a meeting: “How, then, can it be said that the closed session was not a violation of the statute?” he wrote.
In spite of the court’s tough language, the issue of governing bodies meeting with attorneys was an enduring one, both in litigation and in the legislature. Smith addressed the question in a way that discouraged future challenges. “On the one hand, to deny the city council the right to meet in secret with the city attorney might in some instances work to the public disadvantage,” the court said. “But, on the other hand, to allow the council to go into executive session at any time, upon the pretext of consulting the city attorney about legal matters, might readily open the door to repeated and undetectable evasions of the Freedom of Information Act—also to the public disadvantage. Policy decisions such as that are peculiarly within the province of the legislative branch of the government. In this instance, that branch has spoken so unequivocally that its command cannot be misunderstood. Our duty is simply to give effect to its mandate.”
Associate Justice John A. Fogleman wrote a concurring opinion in which he seemed to suggest that, while the act clearly prohibited them, there might be good reasons to allow closed meetings with attorneys. Later attempts to amend the law to allow such meetings in private failed.
For additional information:“Freedom of Information Act Upheld ‘Unequivocally’ on Public Meetings.” Arkansas Gazette, October 22, 1968, pp. 1A–2A.
Laman et al. v. McCord, et al., 245 Ark. 401 (1968).
McCord, Robert S. “Journalists, Republican Governor Helped Establish 1967 Law.” FOI Arkansas. http://www.foiarkansas.com/1010/1010mccord.html (accessed June 20, 2012).
Ernest DumasLittle Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 2/19/2015
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