- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Employees seeking public information would be guaranteed protection from retaliation under a proposal approved Wednesday by an Arkansas House committee.

The House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs supported the proposal to bar any public employer from firing, disciplining or reprimanding an employee who uses the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The 1967 law allows citizens to access most public data, such as governmental contracts and employee salaries. Information such as medical records, grand jury minutes and Social Security minutes are exempt. There are no restrictions on who can ask for open records under the law, which also ensures public access to governmental meetings.

The proposal modifies one sentence in a section of state law that prevents public employers from taking action against workers who communicate with public officials. It would add the same protections for those filing public information requests.

“It simply clarifies that not only can a public employee contact a public official to express their concerns about what might be happening in government, but to ensure their political freedom to exercise a right that all citizens have,” said sponsor Nate Bell, a Republican representative from Mena.

Bell said he was contacted about the idea by a public employee who had been reprimanded by an employer after using the law. He said other employees who said they had been similarly targeted offered him their support after the bill was filed.

After the meeting, Bell declined to say what sort of information the initial employee had requested or what sort of punishment was given. He said he didn’t want to put the employee at further risk.

“Very simply, it just clarifies what we presume how people would operate anyway,” Bell said. “When you become a public employee, you don’t give up the same rights as any other citizen to free speech or to access public documents.”

No other legislators spoke for the bill during the meeting. There were no comments against it.

The idea is backed by the Arkansas State Employees Association. Director Danny James said after the meeting that he’s also been contacted by public employees fearful of requesting information. He said there wasn’t any specific topic that public employees were having trouble accessing.

“State employees as well as everybody else should be able to speak up about issues that concern them without fear of being reprimanded or losing their job,” James said. “This bill removes barriers that keep state employees from being involved.”

The bill now goes to the full House for consideration.

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Follow Allen Reed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/allen_reed

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