In the Snowden era, here's one true hero for freedom of information

Edward Snowden is being called both a traitor and hero for leaking classified details about U.S. surveillance programs.  

The discussion about his enemy-or-hero status took on new meaning for me last night when I heard a true American hero speak at a Society of Professional Journalists banquet at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

This hero is Dick Hammerstrom, an editor at The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., who has been working for more than two decades to keep courts and government meetings open to public view.  He's repeatedly faced-off against legislators who introduce bills that will hide government activities like measures to keep GPS tracking records kept by police from public view.  He runs seminars all over the country for legislators, attorneys, police, journalists, teachers and students on why public information about government activities is so important to democracy.

When Hammerstrom first started in journalism in the 1970s, he worked in Charlotte, N.C., where a government administrator didn't want to share much about the public's business with the press and public.  To get essential stories, hIs reporter predecessors in the basement newsroom of the government building had long followed the practice of waiting for the janitor to throw out that day's carbon copies of typed official letters. "We learned to hold the carbons up to the light to read them," Hammerstrom said, explaining how carbon paper was once used to generate multiple copies of a typewritten document. Various stories were generated via that carbon paper probing.

Hammerstrom, in his humble manner, said in his remarks that it might be a weak metaphor but he  compared a government that is created by and paid by the public to a painter who is hired by a homeowner to paint a room.  When a government doesn't divulge what it is doing, it is like the painter not saying what color the paint will be, when the work will be done, or how much it will cost, Hammerstrom said.

At the banquet, the SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter gave Hammerstrom its 2013 George Mason Award for his tireless freedom of information achievements. The annual award is named after one of the founding fathers, regarded by historians along with James Madison to be a framer of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which includes at the very top, of course, freedom of the press.  Today, that right would properly be called "freedom of information" in its many digital forms.

On the global stage, Snowden is being called a traitor, but prosecutors still haven't charged him with anything.  He's also being called a hero for exposing widespread government spying that defenders of the surveillance claim to be completely authorized by courts, albeit in secret, in defense of public safety and to thwart terrorism.  The stakes are much higher in the Snowden case than anything Hammerstrom has faced, but there are a number of intriguing parallels.

I was most impressed with Hammerstrom when I had a quick opportunity  to ask him what he thinks of Snowden.  At first, Hammerstrom thought Snowden might be a hero, but Snowden's latest actions and his decision to hide out in Hong Kong  have given him pause, Hammerstrom said.  "I don't know what to think of Snowden," Hammerstrom said.

I liked that response, because it shows how a thoughtful person might reserve judgement until more of the facts are in.

Here's to heroes all around us.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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