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Making information known

Mitchell W. Pearlman, the retired general counsel and executive director of Connecticut’s singular Freedom of Information Commission, is a national treasure — no, international treasure. He is recognized from Hartford to Beijing to Johannesburg to Mexico City as a leading expert on the fault lines of government secrecy and ways to pry it open.

If you want a unique view of how democracy should work, pick up Pearlman’s new book “Piercing the Veil of Secrecy, Lessons in the Fight for Freedom of Information.â€

In 1990 he was a delegate to an international meeting of government information commissioners in Ottawa. “For the first time,†he writes, “Freedom of Information Laws were looked at from a comparative law perspective (internationally) and …  It opened up a whole new vista for thought.â€

And therein lies one of the benefits of his book, written with lawyerly restraint and with a literary rhythm that pulls the lay reader to the next page. Who doesn’t want to know what the government is up to — whether it’s how the local police department is protecting the community or how national security agencies are hiding too much from the public?

In a refreshing world view, Pearlman writes of the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of apartheid in South Africa as democratizing movements that let the sunlight in to help root out corruption and human rights abuses that were and are so common in totalitarian societies.

“‘Piercing the Veil of Secrecy’ is a celebration of how far we’ve come and an acknowledgment of how far we must go if we truly embrace the potential of government transparency,†is how University of Missouri journalism Professor Charles N. Davis puts it in the foreword to the book. Executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, Davis writes “this book ... encourages us to engage with these ideas.â€

And how good it is to read about ideas, their points and counterpoints, from a man immersed in them for an entire career who makes them so very accessible to just plain people. Pearlman understands that they are the ones he served for three decades in Connecticut government — the people, and their right to know what their government is doing.

His book delves into Connecticut’s secrecy and it also takes the reader from Ancient Egypt to the American Constitutional Convention in 1787 to the Nixon White House and to a flight of some fancy into secrecy versus transparency as we explore outer space.

Mitch Pearlman is a learned yet humble man. In four pages of acknowledgments he gives his compatriots their due. He remembers those editors and publishers who fought to establish open government laws here in the Nutmeg State — Bice Clemow, the late editor of the West Hartford News and “maitre d’ of Freedom of Information in Connecticutâ€; the late editor of the News-Times of Danbury, Stephen A. Collins, “the behind-the-scenes leader of the movement for Freedom of Information in Connecticutâ€; E. Bartlett Barnes, the late publisher of the Bristol Press.

These men and a few others, such as Lakeville Journal Editor and Publisher Emeritus Robert Estabrook, were instrumental in convincing a woman in power that the state needed a Freedom of Information Commission, one that could fine government officials for breaking right-to-know laws.

And here I quibble with the author for leaving out Ella Grasso, the first woman elected governor in her own right in the United States and who signed the bill into law.

Pearlman devotes considerable space and an entire chapter on the crucial role of watchdog journalism and freedom of the press in the ongoing battle to keep the public informed.

As a young man heading off to New England for my first full-time newspaper job, my grandmother really preferred that I stay closer to home in our little village in western New York state. Her scholarly son, my uncle, told her not to worry — “He’s going to work for Herb Brucker’s paper. The Hartford Courant is one of the best.â€

And indeed, Pearlman writes that Brucker “… I believe coined the term ‘Freedom of Information,’ the title of his 1949 book.â€

The book: “Piercing the Veil of Secrecy: Lessons in the Fight for Freedom of Information,†by Mitchell W. Pearlman. LawFirst Publishing, The Connecticut Bar Association. In the interest of full disclosure, it costs $29.95 on Amazon or through the CBA Member Service Center at 860-223-4400.

For more on the Freedom of Information Commission, go to state.ct.us/foi/

James H. Smith is executive editor of The Bristol Press and New Britain Herald. Reach him at jsmith@centralctcommunications.com.

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