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Reporter arrested after dispute over public records access

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    NMU         ARKANSAS         Press at Home & Abroad         Mar 23, 2000    

Reporter arrested after dispute over public records access

  • The Columbia County sheriff had a reporter arrested after she insisted on seeing records related to a jail furlough program.

A reporter was charged with “obstructing government operations” on March 20 after a request to see information on an inmate’s furlough records led to an argument with a sheriff.

Reporter Toni Walthall of the Magnolia, Arkansas Banner-News, received a tip that a Columbia County inmate, who had previously been convicted of arson and burglary, had been granted a weekend furlough on the condition that he stay at his parent’s house. A grease fire destroyed the home that same weekend.

Walthall went to the jail requesting to see Bradley’s furlough report and spoke with Sheriff Wayne Tompkins.

According to Walthall, Tompkins refused to show her the documents, which are public under Arkansas law, claiming that he had not had a chance to review them yet. After a further exchange, Walthall was repeatedly asked to leave the area. While the area was marked for authorized personnel, reporters and other visitors had traditionally been allowed there, according to Walthall.

Walthall was arrested by a passing deputy at Tompkin’s request and taken across the street to the jail. She was initially charged with obstruction of a law office, which is a felony, but the charge was later reduced to obstructing government operations, a misdemeanor. She is scheduled to appear in court on March 28.

“The sheriff is, we believe, in substantial violation of the state Freedom of Information Act by denying access to the records we’ve requested,” Banner-News general manager Betty Chatham told the Associated Press.

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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