For many, the heady dreams and lofty ideals of the 1960s gave way to more pragmatic goals; it was less about saving the world and more about saving for retirement.
But that wasn’t necessarily the case for Bob Freeman.
“When I was in college in the late 1960s, it was the era of protest and idealism,” Freeman said. “Many of us were very much involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements. So what did we do? We sat around talking about how we were going to change the world. What I’ve discovered is that if we can make a dent in the world, that is a sign of success.”
Freeman has spent the last 38 years making his dent working for the New York State Committee on Open Government, a state office dedicated to insuring that the public has access to public information. The two-person office is part of the New York State Department of State, and it’s one of just a handful nationwide that fulfills this particular mission.
“Every state has some sort of open records law and some sort of open meetings law, but only a handful have created offices like ours,” Freeman said. “When there’s a question, people have nobody to call. Here we literally receive thousands of inquiries annually and millions of hits on our website. FOIL has become a part of the vocabulary of thousands of New Yorkers. It’s a noun, it’s a verb, it’s even an adjective.”
As executive director of the office, Freeman has addressed numerous government related organizations, bar associations, media groups and has lectured at various colleges and universities. He has also spoken on open government laws and concepts throughout the United States, as well as Canada, the far east, Latin America and eastern Europe, and has taught the only course in an American law school on public access to government information.
“This position has given me the opportunity to make a difference,” Freeman said. “It’s completely consistent with the idealism so many of us had in the ’60s.”
Freeman, who received a BS in international relations from Georgetown and graduated from New York University, is devoted to ensuring access to public records.
“It’s easy to be motivated when the issues involve democratic principles and the public’s ability to improve society,” he said. “That’s what these laws are about — providing rights on the part of the public that will enable us to make our lives just a little bit better.”
Freeman is such a strong advocate for open government that he is one of this year’s nominees for the Sunshine Week Local Hero Award, co-sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The awards honor individuals who have played a significant role in fighting for transparency in government. The 2012 Local Hero winner will be honored at the 2012 ASNE annual convention in Washington, D.C. April 2 to 4. The winner’s expenses to attend the conference will be covered by Sunshine Week. Second- and third-place winners will receive $500 and $250, respectively.
But that’s not why Freeman does what he does. He keeps working for a day when government will provide records without being asked to do so.
“I hope that government will continue to engage in proactive disclosure,” he said. “That involves making information available, in general, as well as online, even before anyone requests it. When that occurs, people don’t have to request records and government doesn’t have to respond to those requests. The material is there for the taking. If it’s relevant and usable, everybody will benefit.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.