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Freedom of information discusses public’s right to know

BY DARLA SLIPKE Published: March 13, 2011
Oklahoma’s Open Records and Open Meeting laws have some “significant defects” that inhibit access to information and the public’s right to know, a freedom of information expert said Saturday.

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, pointed out half a dozen areas that could be improved in Oklahoma’s laws when he skimmed through the text Saturday morning during FOI Oklahoma’s 2011 Sunshine Conference.

FOI Oklahoma is a statewide nonprofit organization that promotes openness in government and access to public information. Sunshine Week, which starts today, is a national initiative aimed at promoting discussion and awareness about open government and freedom of information.

Everything should be open unless disclosure would cause significant harm, Freeman told close to 50 public officials, journalists and concerned citizens who gathered at The Oklahoman for the conference. Exceptions should pass a harm test and include a reason why they are exempt, he said.

“That is missing in most instances from your law in Oklahoma,” he said. “You have broad exceptions which do not recognize that basic principle.”

Freeman’s job is to give legal advice about freedom of information issues to anyone who asks, including government agencies, journalists and the public. His agency, which includes one other person, is a unit within New York’s Department of State. Freeman issues legal opinions and judges often follow them, he said. He said the attorney general sends freedom of information issues to him.

Freeman said his agency is rare among states in the U.S. He said if a day passes and he didn’t upset a public official, it means he didn’t go to work. However, his agency has developed credibility and respect by being impartial, he said.

Freedom of information is not only a legal requirement, it’s also an ethical obligation, said Joey Senat, coordinator of Sunshine Week for Oklahoma and a member of FOI Oklahoma’s board of directors.

Many people aren’t aware of their rights, Senat said — having an agency like Freeman’s to turn to would be a big help.

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