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FOIL opens door to information

In terms of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, people often say that sunlight is the best disinfectant; an expression made popular by former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Supporters of New York's Freedom of Information Law might consider it the source of pure, glistening ultraviolet rays.

The law, known also as FOIL, allows anyone access to government documents for a number of purposes, and the person requesting the documents does not need to provide an explanation.

The Committee on Open Government, an advisory organization that offers opinions regarding FOIL, states on its Web site at www.dos.state.ny.us/coog that "any New York state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function is subject to the law."

The law does not apply to private entities.

"We see it used every day; information about how the government functions. It's important especially now, two weeks before the election," said Bob Freeman, the executive director for COOG, and one of the state's leading authorities on FOIL, in an Oct. 21 interview.

Freeman said the law can be used by citizens, reporters concerned with the activities of government officials and even government officials themselves.

In another example of the law's many uses, an advisory opinion penned by Freeman in December 2005, cited the ability of companies to use it for commercial purposes.

"It's a diverse law. Anyone can make a request regardless if you are from New Scotland or Timbuktu," Freeman said.

"There are records practically dealing with everything."

When used commercially, however, FOIL cannot be used to obtain lists of names and addresses for fundraising purposes, as it would constitute and "unwarranted invasion of property."

The law at work

When a FOIL request is made, the governing body must respond within five days to inform the person making the inquiry that they are looking into the request. The governing body has 20 days to either comply or provide a written response as to why the records could not be obtained.

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