Weitzel Backs Freedom Of Information At Chautauqua

CHAUTAUQUA – Freedom of information isn’t always free.

That was the message from Peter Weitzel, retired managing editor of the Miami Herald. Weitzel spoke Thursday during a weeklong Special Studies lecture series hosted by the Robert H. Jackson Center entitled “The Practice of Justice Jackson’s Art: Talent and Responsibility in Public Communication” at Chautauqua Institution. His lecture was entitled “Government and Your Right to Know – The Battle Continues.”

Robert H. Jackson was a chief U.S. prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. Additionally, Jackson was a Chautauquan throughout his life, is regarded as one of the finest writers to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, was a leading lawyer in private practice and was a top U.S. government official under President Franklin Roosevelt. Additionally, Jackson was a leading public figure and speaker in the 1930s and 1940s, and was often on nationwide radio.

During his lecture, Weitzel discussed the Freedom of Information Act, providing real-life examples of how it has worked and how it has failed, many of the examples coming from his own life experiences.

“We have to be able to participate in government,” Weitzel said. “And, that means we have to have the permission to do it.”

The Freedom of Information Act is a federal law which allows full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government.

Weitzel provided several examples of when the act does not work as it was designed. One example included a journalist looking for information which was partially blacked out. Several other members of the office requested the same information, only to find different sections had been blacked out. Together, the journalists were able to put the document together to find the majority of the information.

Additionally, Weitzel talked about a journalist in his own office who had requested information under the Freedom of Information Law. After waiting a substantial amount of time, the journalist wrote the article without the requested information. Six months later, the journalist quit the newspaper to go on to other things. Months after the journalist quit, the information he had requested through the FOIL was received. In addition to the long wait time, there are, at times, substantial price tags attached to the information, which Weitzel said were to discourage the information from getting out.

Weitzel encouraged the audience to remain involved and to work constantly to keep government open and information free.

The lecture series concludes today with James H. Mullen Jr., president of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. Mullen’s lecture is entitled: “A Conversation with Jim Mullen.”

The cost of the lecture is $22. Access to the grounds for the lecture requires a commuter gate pass.