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Don’t Ban Books, Just Chase Away Researchers: The Latest on the “Real Hot Mess” at the University of

Updated: Apr 13

The Washington Free Beacon wasn’t the only news organization with concerns about the University of Arkansas library special collections archive policy which requires media to fill out a “permission to publish” form. A producer with ABC also thought the policy might be unconstitutional, according to University of Arkansas spokesman Steve Voorhies.

Voorhies said in an email Thursday:

In February the producer who was working on the “Blair Papers” story for ABC expressed concerns about it, indicated their attorneys were getting involved.  I’m not sure who they talked with, or how the issue was resolved.

It’s not been a very good week for the university’s library policy of requiring journalists to ask permission to publish public information. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial board also published multiple editorials critical of the University of Arkansas’s response to the Free Beacon, and its requirement that news outlets must ask permission to publish public documents at a public library. The university’s actions were also panned by UALR Bowen School of Law’s Robert Steinbuch in comments to The Arkansas Project last Friday. Multiple emails obtained by The Arkansas Project through a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that other members of the media had questioned the constitutionality of the much-criticized “permission to publish” policy. Washington Free Beacon reporter, Alana Goodman, e-mailed Voorhies on June 19, asking for an explanation of the University of Arkansas’s ban:

Legal experts I spoke to are pretty baffled by this. Public research libraries are usually on the other side of the intellectual property rights issue, pushing for greater access. Anyway, I wanted to reach out to you for comment.

Goodman’s concerns are widely shared. According to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, located at the bastion of the right-wing conspiracy known as Harvard University:

Libraries are major purchasers of copyrighted works and make these works available to the public. Although librarians typically seek to prevent copyright infringement of library materials, the ultimate responsibility of librarians is to provide access to materials and information services, not to enforce copyright law.

Voorhies forwarded Goodman’s e-mail along a few minutes later on June 19 to several university administrators, saying that the action taken against the Free Beacon was “news to me.” His second sentence below is a masterpiece of understatement.

I know they didn’t follow our policies–but other media considered our policy unconstitutional. Obvious PR problems.

Although it seems unlikely that the University of Arkansas would do away with making journalists go through the indignity of asking a public institution for “permission” to publish public information, revisions to the policy could be coming soon. Timothy Nutt, head of special collections at the University of Arkansas Libraries said in an e-mail reply to Voorhies on June 19:

We are looking at revising the “Permission to Publish” and possibly other forms to incorporate different language, which sets forth our rules and our expectations for use of our materials. Scott Varady (UA’s Associate General Counsel) has given us language to use in a draft, and any new or edited forms will be reviewed by University Counsel.

The Washington Free Beacon has been using the University of Arkansas special collections archive in recent months for a number of stories about the past life of Hillary Clinton Carolyn Henderson Allen, Dean of Libraries at University of Arkansas, in an email to Judy Schwab, a University administrator, on February 10 after the Free Beacon published its first article with documents from the UA library, said:

(Name redacted) just called from (organization redacted) and he wanted to know about the papers. Martha sent him to Tim for information. This is getting to be a real hot mess. Happy Monday.

Indeed, the situation is becoming a “real hot mess.” The university should end the “permission to publish” form requirement for public documents if they want things to cool down anytime soon.

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