Professor Fights For Open Records

Sunday, February 4th 2007, 3:49 pm
By: News On 6

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) _ Joey Senat hates bullies.

That's why the Oklahoma State University media law professor has been fighting officials during his 25-year career in journalism to make certain public records and meetings stay public.

Now, as the new president of FOI Oklahoma, Senat, 46, hopes to take the message of open government not only to journalists but to average residents and students.

His mission has taken on added importance in a post-Sept. 11 world, where more documents are being sealed under the banner of national security.

``These laws aren't laws for reporters, they're laws for the public,'' said Senat, who also teaches courses on public affairs reporting and censorship. ``When an official denies access to a record or when a public body meets in secret, they're stealing from Oklahomans.''

Formed in 1990, FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that educates citizens and politicians about openness in government the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Its 30-member board is made up of librarians, journalists, citizens, attorneys and professors, among others. It has trained more than 600 teachers on Education for Freedom curriculum materials developed by the First Amendment Congress, according to the group's Web site.

Gloria Trotter, editor and publisher of The Tecumseh Countywide News, said having a board not entirely made up of journalists gives it more credibility with the public.

``To me, it lends a lot of weight to the protection of the public's right to know,'' said Trotter, one of the FOI group's founding members. ``It's a broad spectrum of people fighting to keep public access to records.''

Senat, who was a reporter for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., and the Tulsa World, fields at least one phone call or e-mail a week from someone who can't get a public record or access to a public meeting. The calls aren't always from reporters.

``Our state constitution puts the power in the people's hands,'' Senat said. ``We're obligated to know what's going on.''

When records are denied, the high cost of suing to get them leaves many citizens in the lurch. Making matters worse, some district attorneys refuse to pursue charges for fear of upsetting political allies, Senat said.

``These officials are often very arrogant and antagonistic toward the public's right to this information,'' said Senat, who added that Oklahoma law enforcement ranks among the biggest offenders in denying records.

During his yearlong presidency, Senat wants to set up a legal fund to help pay for filing lawsuits on behalf of citizens to get records.

He also wants to use workshops and speeches at high schools and colleges to educate Oklahomans on what their rights are under the state's laws, among other goals.

FOI Oklahoma sponsors a First Amendment Congress each November that offers programs to students and professionals.

FOI Oklahoma will also sponsor a free webcast in Oklahoma City next month, ``Closed Doors; Open Democracies?'' meant as a public dialogue on open government and secrecy.

For Senat, the battle for the public's right to know is never over.

``We need someone to stand up for John and Jane Public,'' Senat said. ``There are plenty of bullies in officials' clothes in this state.''