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Celebrating, and fighting for, open government

Every spring Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, teaches a seminar course at Albany Law School titled "Public Access to Government Information."

But he spends most of his days helping average citizens find out what their government is doing by advising them about their right to request documents or attend meetings. He answers their questions about the laws that give them this access, laws that many people are unaware of until they need to find out about something and can't.

It is not surprising, then, that Freeman is celebrating the second annual Sunshine Week this week. This celebration of open government is a national effort to focus on the American public's "right to know," the doctrine at the heart of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gave rise to FOIL, was enacted in 1966. The act's primary purpose was to create an informed citizenry by ensuring public access to government information. FOIA created the first set of laws granting the American public the right to obtain government records.

"An uninformed public can do no good. Only with information can we contribute and improve the way we live," said Freeman. "Ignorance really is not bliss. The more secrecy we have within our government, the less accountability."

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a memo to federal agencies encouraging denial of FOIL requests in the name of national security.

"During the Clinton administration, Janet Reno instructed FOIL officers to look at requests with a presumption of openness. The Ashcroft 2001 memo basically tells these officers to ignore Reno's previous directions," said Debra Gersh Hernandez, a member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and lead coordinator of Sunshine Week 2006.

"Within the last three years the amount of classified materials has doubled to 15.6 million decisions to classify documents," said Hodding Carter, a professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and honorary chairman of Sunshine Week 2006.

According to a study conducted by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, in 2000 the federal government granted nearly 350,000 FOIL requests, but by 2004, that number had dropped to fewer than 250,000.

"The purpose of Sunshine Week is twofold: one, to make clear the extent big government has been curtailing the flow of information and news to the public, and two, to let people know ways to deal with this type of government behavior," said Carter.

Anyone wishing to participate can find a "tool kit" of ideas on the group's Web site, www.asne.org. The site contains a poster designed by The Buffalo News.

"I don't instruct the participants to do anything specific. It is up to them how they would like to participate," said Hernandez. "Seeing the wide spectrum of what people do is very exciting."

Mahta Khanjar is an intern with the New York Newspaper Publishers Association.