The Web is a wonderful way to distribute historic research, and there are many great options for the public to read and research online. There are databases like Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and others that make it easy to search and are free to users.
What most people took from that statement was that DPLA is free. And, while they are without direct charge to the user, they are not free. It costs a lot of money to run the DPLA and it is funded by Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University as well as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The public has free access, but there is nothing free about it.
When people clamor that journal articles should be free, they cannot also mean that researchers should not be paid for to research. What people want is for journal articles to be free to them, but they ignore how expensive quality research is. The public would not foot the bill for an elite research journal. The publicly funded information is filtered down onto public radio, into public libraries, and community tv, but these institutions can hardly find funding.
While the idealist would believe that all information should be free, the realist understands that you only get what you pay for and quality research should be rewarded by those influenced by it.