PHOENIX — Legislation designed to let public agencies deny “unduly burdensome” requests for records has hit a snag that could kill it.
Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, said Friday he has shelved SB 1339 amid opposition from constituents. He said they believe it will unfairly restrict their access to government documents.
Shooter said he believes they may not understand the protections that remain in the measure. And he pointed out the language, approved just this past week by the state Senate, has gained the support of attorneys for the media who carefully watch for anything they believe unduly restricts public access.
But the senator said unless and until he can get constituent support, or come up with a new version to their liking, the legislation will die.
At the core of the issue is a law that says public records and other matters in the custody of a public official “shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours.”
It also gives those who have been denied the right to examine or copy records to sue and, if they win, collect legal fees.
The problem, said Shooter, are the fishing expeditions.
Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, tried similar legislation last year after seeing the same situation in his district.
“We’re getting requests that are taking three, four or five days,” he said, with some agencies having to hire additional staffers to comply.
Last year’s measure faltered. So Shooter, working with interested parties, crafted a compromise.
It requires anyone seeking records to identify them “with reasonable particularity.” But it also says public agencies can deny a request if it is “unduly burdensome or harassing.”
Shooter acknowledged the language could be read as putting some limits on the absolute right to demand records.
But he said it is reasonable. And Shooter said there clearly can be limits.
“The First Amendment right of free speech doesn’t say you can yell ‘fire’ in a theater,” he said. “There has to be some reasonable balance in this thing.”
Shooter said, though, that local opposition means the measure is dead, at least for now.
“I’m going to fight for the bill,” he said, and its future depends on convincing foes that the measure is not as bad as they think.
“If those concerns over the current SB 1339 cannot be resolved, then, for this session, this bill is dead,” Shooter said.
The senator does not have forever to address those concerns: The legislation has to be heard by a House committee by March 27 or it is dead for this year.