Paul Fisher a true champion for freedom of information

Thursday, March 19, 2009 | 3:02 p.m. CDT; updated 7:11 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 19, 2009

It seems somehow appropriate that Paul Fisher left us in the middle of Sunshine Week. That’s the week every year designated by journalists and our fellow travelers to emphasize the importance of access to information.

Sunshine Week is a gimmick, really. I suspect Paul wouldn’t have approved. He wasn’t a gimmicky man. He was, though, a behind-the-scenes hero of the national movement that gave us the laws guaranteeing, however imperfectly, that our rulers — from city councils and school boards to the president of the United States — do their work in public.

Paul’s legacy is the Freedom of Information Center, the nation’s leading repository of material related to access and the limitations thereof. Today, the FOI Center functions as a subset of the journalism library. You’ll find it in the beautiful new Reynolds Journalism Institute on the Ninth Street edge of MU's campus. You’ll also find here the headquarters of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the vigorous offspring of the Center.

In the beginning, back in the pre-Sunshine days of the 1950s, there was nothing beautiful about it. There was only an unmet need, a crippling lack of money and a commitment by an otherwise conservative dean and an unqualified young faculty member. The dean was Earl English. The faculty member was Paul. I wrote about the center as a chapter in my dissertation, which Paul directed. He didn’t much like the references to his leadership role, but he was too honest to edit them out.

Dean English, who otherwise was so tight-fisted that he took pride in turning back to Jesse Hall unused portions of the school’s budget, took a flier on freedom of information. With no money, no facilities and no staff, he committed the school to create in 1958 what would become the cerebellum of the fledgling movement that led, eight years later, to the national Freedom of Information Act.

Paul claimed his sole qualification for the directorship of the new center was availability, as he wasn’t a working journalist or a lawyer. Instead, he became the country’s foremost expert in the subject, and a forceful if reluctant advocate.

In an interview 20 years later, Dean English recalled with clear distaste his years of mainly unsuccessful efforts to raise money for the center. Newspaper publishers, whose staffs were the most direct beneficiaries of the center’s research and collection, were “the worst people in the world” for parting with money, he said.

One reason for their reluctance was the insistence of the center’s director on expanding its purview to include the shortcomings of the press itself. That was one anomaly. The other, as observers noted at the time, was that a state-supported school was putting itself at the center of a movement whose principle target was the government.

That insistence wasn’t the only time Paul made life more difficult for his boss. In 1971, for instance, he signed on as co-plaintiff with two congressmen in a federal lawsuit seeking release of the full version of the Pentagon Papers. The university’s general counsel summoned him. Paul told me much later, “There were no threats, just a reminder that, ‘Mr. Fisher, you do understand that only the Board of Curators can commit the university to legal action.’” He understood, but he didn’t take his name off the suit.

For more than 25 years, Paul, with a one-person staff and generations of graduate students, published the FOI Digest and more than 500 monographs on access issues. When the university’s recurring budget problems forced suspension of publications and threatened the center’s existence, the library came to the rescue.

The center celebrated its anniversary in 1978 with a visit from James Pope, a retired editor and for years a leader of the FOI movement. He declared that if a Freedom of Information Hall of Fame were ever created, Earl English and Paul Fisher would deserve inclusion in the front rank.

I noted at the time that Paul would no doubt prefer a small room in the rear, as long as it came equipped with a filing system.

Paul is in the hall of fame, of course, and there also is a center and a coalition. There is also a continuing need for sunshine. Paul would say, I’m pretty sure, that all of us who favor openness still have plenty of work to do.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.



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