Public Spirits Spread
In the forefront of many consumers, taxpayer and environmental struggles have been increasing numbers of public interest lawyers representing citizens’ grievances and reforms in courts, before legislatures and regulatory agencies. These lawyers, while still small in number, are pushing law firms, bar associations and law schools to question what they should be doing to connect the law to justice.
Little has been heard, however, from other professions about their role in investigating and advocating on behalf of defenseless or unorganized people such as the aged, children, consumers, the poor, tenants, minorities and other citizens unjustly affected by corporate or governmental power.
It is encouraging therefore to report some recent developments among public spirited scientists, accountants, economists and architects who are carving out their public interest missions:
– The Center for Science in the Public Interest (1719 Church Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036) is composed of five young PhD scientists engaged in a whirl of important activity on a tiny budget. In a city where thousands of health and safety issues are regularly debated and decided by government, CSPI presents the technical facts which special interests and their complaint agencies want to ignore. The Center’s studies, testimony or litigation have covered the hazards of food additives, the harmful impacts of proposed highways, gasoline additives, stripmining, and specific environmental contaminants such as asbestos and cadmium. One member, microbiologist, Michael Jacobson, has written a paperback titled Eater’s Digest: The Consumer’s Factbook of Food Additives.What CSPI is most committed to advancing is the involvement of scientists around the country. It is doing this through a science matching service that links citizen organizations in search of technical help with interested scientists and engineers.
– Accountants for the Public Interest (351 California Street, San Francisco, CA, 94104) draw on the free, part time services of several dozen accountants to serve citizen groups who need expert testimony or analysis of financial information. For example, API performed accounting evaluations which helped law reform groups win a law suit in New Orleans requiring federally supported hospitals to provide a specified degree of free services for the poor. For their client, San Francisco Consumer Action, API investigated the financial intricacies of proposed utility and telephone rate increases before the California Public Utilities Commission. Whether in education, rent increases for the poor, care of dependent children, household-moving goods industry or prisoners’ welfare funds, API is finding that its skills can serve consumers and the disadvantaged. Like CSPI, this public interest accountant group is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization which is trying to enlist accountants around the country in such activities.
– The Public Interest Economics Center (1714 Massachusetts Avenue N.W, Washington, D.C. 20036) has a 10 member Washington-based staff and dozens of volunteer economists around the nation. Backed by several of the country’s leading economists, PIEC is focusing its expertise on such matters as the federal budget, federal subsidies, energy policies, agricultural issues, and other pressing public questions about which citizens find themselves without expert advice. Director, Allen R. Ferguson, believes that many economic, social and political inequities flow from “the uneven distribution of knowledge and information.”
– “October” ( 1739 Connecticut Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009) is a firm of architects and city planners providing technical assistance to citizens concerning building codes, major commercial developments which conflict with neighborhood rights, and designs for free clinics and historical sites. While they provide regular contractual services for governmental agencies, “October” is keen on spreading the ethic of publicinterest service by their profession at least on a part time basis.
Something quite important is reflected by these and other similar emerging efforts. In a society where knowledge is power, the professions have been too often unquestioning servants of wealth rather than advocates for broader public interests such as health, safety, equal justice and open government. A redirection of skilled talent to serve people directly is integral to the ripening of democracy.