Robert Freeman has served as the executive director for the Committee on Government for 37 years. His agency, part of New York’s Department of State, is one of the nation’s few government agencies created to deal with open government laws.
“I am mystified that the government pays me to do what I do,” he said in a speech delivered to S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications graduate students on Wednesday morning.
As part of his job, Freeman, who received his bachelor’s degree in foreign service at Georgetown University and his law degree at New York University, travels around the country and even the world to give 80 to 90 presentations a year. In these speeches, he discusses open government laws, which include the disclosure of public records, and openness of public meetings.
Freeman said he acts according to what he sees as the main objective of his position: to encourage disclosure of information, specifically from government agencies.
“We’re not there to support the government,” he said. “We’re there to do the right thing.”
While “doing the right thing” often results in the exposure of embarrassing or sensitive information, he said that the government generally does not give him a hard time.
“I’d like to think it’s because of my expertise and reputation for impartiality, but just as important is the fear of the news media,” he said.
Freeman advises people who approach him with questions within the framework of New York state law, which considers most items related to bureaucrats and public officials public.
Often, laws regarding Freedom of Information are inconsistent or ambiguous, and things get even stickier when it comes to individuals’ privacy.
“Our view of privacy is always changing,” he said. “The sensibilities of society change according to generational differences.”
Freeman said common sense is the answer. He goes by the Aretha Franklin thinking of “You Better Think.” In general, Freeman said he advises people who contact him to seek disclosure, “unless the answer, in the gut, is ‘Ow, this would really hurt.’”
Freeman said that the trend toward disclosing public information is positive, thanks to developments in technology and information availability. “When we started, it was a completely different world,” he said. “We lucked out.”
Now, even the government is encouraging the availability of public records on websites and through email. “This way, you don’t need to make a request, no one needs to deal with a request, and everyone wins,” Freeman said.
In 2009, the Pulitzer Prize board awarded a Glens Falls editorial writer, Mark Mahoney, who has frequented Freeman on FOI law, for his “relentless, down-to-earth editorials on the perils of local government secrecy, effectively admonishing citizens to uphold their right to know.”
Mahoney told Freeman that new laws involving requests by email have made life easier for journalists and citizens. “Because it’s not as confrontation,” Freeman said. “Email is informal. … It’s simple, easy and it’s cheap.”
Freeman said that while he sees no reason to stop doing the job he loves, he hopes his long career has helped make a dent in the disclosure of public information.
He said the casual use of the acronym “FOIL” indicated that people are becoming more aware of their right to information. He said he hears all kinds of creative uses of the word as a noun, verb and even an adjective.
“To my mind, that signifies that the world at large knows something about disclosure,” he said. It doesn’t matter to him whether or not everyone gets the lingo down.
“We don’t have to be a nation of lawyers, but we do have to be a nation of people who know something.”
For more information on Freeman and his committee, visit their website.