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Hot Springs police handcuff advocate for government transparency, remove her from public venue

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Hot Springs police handcuff advocate for government transparency, remove her from public venue

Jun 14, 2024 | 7:03 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin
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Hot Springs police handcuff advocate for government transparency, remove her from public venue
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Several drafters of a proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act in the state Constitution participated in a public forum in Little Rock on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. From left: attorney David Couch, Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Ashley Wimberley, Democratic state Sen. Clarke Tucker, attorney Jen Standerfer and former independent state representative Nate Bell. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

This story was updated at 7:11 p.m. on June 14, 2024 to include comments from Arkansas Citizens for Transparency, and again at 4:15 p.m. on June 17, 2024 to include comments from the Arkansas Bar Association.

Police officers handcuffed Bentonville attorney Jen Standerfer on Friday and escorted her out of the Hot Springs Convention Center after she collected two signatures for citizen-initiated ballot measures, she said.

Standerfer is a founding member of the nonpartisan Arkansas Citizens for Transparency (ACT), which received Attorney General Tim Griffin’s approval in January to seek support from registered voters in hopes of putting two government transparency measures on the November ballot.

The incident marks at least the second time in the last month that supporters of potential ballot measures faced police opposition while collecting signatures in a public space ahead of a July 5 deadline.

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In May, Little Rock police told supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment that would create a limited right to abortion that they could be arrested for obstructing traffic. The canvassers told reporters they were not blocking traffic but instead sought the attention of drivers while standing on a public sidewalk.

The Arkansas Bar Association held its annual conference from Wednesday to Friday in Hot Springs. Standerfer said in an interview that she attended the conference as a member of the association and to complete her required continuing education as an attorney. She said she brought petitions for both measures in case anyone wanted to sign them.

One proposed measure would alter the state Freedom of Information Act to codify a definition of a “public meeting,” broaden the legal definitions of a “governing body” and “communication” among members of government bodies, create stiffer civil penalties for violating the FOIA and protect citizens’ right to appeal FOIA decisions, among other things.

The other proposed measure would amend the state Constitution to create the right to government transparency, defined as “the government’s obligation to share information with citizens.”

Proposed acts require 72,563 signatures by July 5 in order to appear on the November ballot, while proposed amendments require 90,704 signatures.

Standerfer said Hot Springs police first asked her to stop soliciting signatures Thursday evening when she brought a wagon full of petition documents with a sign on it into the convention center. She complied with the request not to bring the wagon and sign back Friday morning, she said.

The convention center has a policy against solicitation of any kind, said Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, which runs the convention center.

“We have an obligation to the people who rent our space that they can use it without being bothered,” Arrison said.

He added that the content of the petitions had “nothing to do with” the opposition to Standerfer collecting signatures.

Standerfer said she did not ask anyone for signatures or share information about the proposed ballot measures unless someone approached her and asked about them directly.

“It didn’t feel contentious to me. This wasn’t me going up to people and saying ‘Hey, can I talk to you about the FOIA?’” she said. “Literally, it is the most minimally intrusive kind of speech… Anytime someone approaches me about it, I will engage with them.”

After two people signed petitions on Friday, police approached Standerfer and said both the convention center and the bar association did not want her soliciting signatures. Officers threatened her with jail time, handcuffed her and escorted her from the building, but then removed the handcuffs and said she had been trespassing but would not be charged or sent to jail, she said.

Arrison said he was not present Friday and did not see Standerfer collect signatures or interact with police, but “she must have done something that made them think she was soliciting signatures again.”

The Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission owns the convention center and is responsible for spending the city’s 3% tax on prepared food and lodging to promote the city. The commission authorized nearly $4.5 million in capital improvements for the center last year, according to the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record.

Standerfer said she was not trespassing at the convention center, contrary to what police told her, because it was paid for with taxpayer dollars.

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She also said it was unusual for the Arkansas Bar Association to take issue with her being willing to collect signatures because its conferences consistently have a “political undertone.” Attorneys frequently run for office, and Standerfer herself once ran as a Democrat for a seat in the state House of Representatives.

“I have never been at a bar meeting where you did not have a candidate wearing a sticker, or hand you a sticker, hand you a palm card or ask you for support in an election,” she said.

She added that the Bar Association told her it took no position on the government transparency ballot measures, but the Hot Springs police told her the organization wanted her to leave because she was collecting signatures.

“I would hope that government bodies that serve the people would do the people the service of telling them, ‘Hey, we’ve got a policy against that,’ before calling the police and having them removed from the building,” Standerfer said. “It’s sad to me that we’ve lost this sense of community… because people are so incensed by the idea of politics.”

Arkansas Citizens for Transparency issued a statement Friday night promising to continue fighting for Arkansans’ right to know.

“While Arkansas Citizens for Transparency strongly supports the rule of law, this protection must also extend to Standerfer’s constitutional right to advocate for the First Amendment,” the group said.

The Arkansas Bar Association and the Hot Springs Police Department did not return requests for comment as of Friday evening.

The Advocate has sent FOIA records requests to the police department, asking for Standerfer’s arrest report, if there is one, and the body camera footage from the officers that escorted her from the convention center.

On Monday, the Bar Association said in a statement that “no one who was authorized to speak on behalf of” the organization asked convention center representatives to remove Standerfer from the premises but instead informed her of the center’s policy against solicitation.