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May 8, 2016

As one of the three men who pioneered the upkeep of a law that gets people to “do the right thing,” Bob Freeman is a highly regarded and respected resource for collecting data that people deserve.


Freeman spent about an hour an a half with a class of University at Albany journalism students Tuesday night discussing what he does, how it works, and encouraging the students to take advantage of what is available to them.


Freeman is the executive director for the New York State Committee on Open Government, and one of his major responsibilities is overseeing and advising regarding the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).


As the Committee on Open Government site states, FOIL pertains to the public’s right to gain access to government records. Freeman clarified that it is records, not information, that FOIL offers access to, and he admitted that that title could be misleading.


Records include things like audio or video from meetings, and minutes kept at those meetings. The difference between written and recorded records are that audio and video can be deleted after four months whereas written records are kept forever, according to Freeman.


Although it has its kinks, the law is one Freeman is enthusiastic about. New York was one of the first few states to have this sort of resource for it’s people, and Freeman’s job was, subsequently, one of the first of it’s kind. He’s travelled all over the world sharing what he does with others.


He is the man to go to if anyone, and he means anyone, wants assistance or advice getting access to records. “It’s easy to be the man when you’re the only one,” Freeman said.


His position is a valuable resource because getting access to records is a process that requires both specificity and knowledge about what one is looking for. Right from the outset it is tough to know, for example, who to ask.


Additionally, Freeman said, “I think there are a lot of agencies who are intentionally resistant.” His job is to help get around resistance, and hold people accountable, by law, for denying records. “The laws that we are talking about are based primarily on common sense,” he said. He believes, “everything is open, except to the extent that disclosure would hurt.”


“Hurt,” Freeman admitted, is an intentionally vague word. Hurt could mean a lot of things depending on a situation, but the rule of thumb is that if the average person would say it’s nobody’s business, records can be kept private, like medical records. If not, like emails, Freeman said it’s covered and those are records that should be released upon request.


With the impending presidential elections in mind, a student asked Freeman what he thought about Hillary Clinton’s emails. He said if she were a state employee, FOIL covers access to her emails, both official and private, meaning the public would have access to them.


Since Clinton is not a state employee, her emails are not necessarily covered. He noted that as an issue with the federal act regarding records, and said he does not believe that it is expansive enough.


Freeman said he wants to see issues like this change in the future. He said he always strives for a “better law than we have today.”


About his career, both since 1974 and about the future of the Committee, he said he views the law as evolutionary. “The ultimate goals never end,” Freeman said.


“In the late 60’s in college we sat around the dorm talking about how we were going to change the world…and you find out that if you’re really lucky, you can make a dent. And I like to think that I’ve made a dent.”