February 26, 2014
FOIL expert lectures on ‘right to know’
The executive director of the state Department of State’s Committee on Open Government fielded questions from SUNY Cortland students and Cortland County residents about their right to request information from state and local governments.
Approximately 50 people gathered Tuesday evening in the Sperry Center on SUNY Cortland’s campus as Robert Freeman described his job and outlined some of the basics of the state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws.
“Our most significant function involves the preparation of advisory legal opinions,” Freeman said. “Our goal is to ... answer questions before they develop into problems and disputes.”
First established in 1977, the Freedom of Information Laws, or FOIL laws, are a series of state laws that guarantee a citizen’s right to request the records of governments in New York, so long as the information is applicable to a government official’s duties and will not result in unnecessary damages or an unreasonable invasion of privacy.
Similarly, the Open Meetings Law addresses the right of citizens to speak at or to sit in on the meetings of government bodies, and when these entities can meet behind closed doors.
The main idea throughout the question and answer session was that people have the right to hold their governments accountable, and that in most cases, asking for the right information can be a catalyst for change.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Freeman said. “You shine light on the situation and often, either good things begin to happen or bad things stop happening.”
While similar laws exist in other states and even at the federal level, Freeman encouraged residents to take advantage of what he considers possibly the most broad-reaching FOIL laws in the country.
“One of the advantages we have in New York ... that distinguishes our law from other (FOIL) laws around the country,” Freeman said, “is that our law, since 1978, has defined what a government agency record is.”
He went on to define a record as any information in any physical form whatsoever, kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, with, or for a government agency. He said that definition is what has allowed people to acquire virtually any type of document, even with the advent of the Internet.
“If it doesn’t exist, the government can’t be forced to create something new on your behalf,” Freeman said. “However, if it does exist, and they can find it and they can extract it from a database with reasonable effort ... the government is required to do so.”
Cortland resident Ashley Denkenberger was one of the non-student members in attendance, and she said the presentation was helpful. She was happy to see students and residents coming together to better understand their rights under the law.
“The turnout was wonderful,” Denkenberger said. “I like to see the citizens coming out. And ... by having Mr. Freeman here, it shows us that we have rights, too, and they (governments) do need to be held accountable.”
When asked why he came to speak to students and residents, Freeman said he simply felt obligated to educate those who might not know how to obtain the information they have a right to access.
“I believe my role has evolved more than anything else into the role of an educator, Freeman said. “I like getting up in front of the crowd and saying, ‘ask me anything; make my day,’ and I don’t think anyone else does that. I try to teach people as much as I can ... about the public’s right to know; I think it’s important.”
More information about FOIL and OML laws can be found online at www.dos.ny.gov/coog.
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