From Canada, another FOI dispute on campus…

From our neighbors to the north comes a fresh academic freedom/FOI dispute:

Amir Attaran speaking at an H1N1 conference at...

Amir Attaran speaking at an H1N1 conference at the University of Ottawa/ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A prominent University of Ottawa law professor has launched a grievance against a school administrator after she agreed to release documents related to his research under the province’s freedom of information law.

Professor Amir Attaran is outraged that the university would so readily abandon its defence of academic freedom.

Diane Davidson, the university’s vice-president of governance, told Attaran last week that the school had decided to accede to an order from the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner to produce the professor’s research-related expense reports.

Davidson refused Attaran’s demand that the university contest the production order in court.

“The defence of confidential information, within the limits prescribed by law, is a cornerstone of the academic freedom to conduct research,” Attaran writes in his notice of grievance. “It is disappointing that Ms. Davidson has chosen not to protect that freedom to the utmost.”

In an interview Wednesday, Attaran said the unredacted documents being released contained his credit card number, his home address and the address of his parents.

“It’s quite disgusting,” he said.

Davidson did not return a phone call Wednesday requesting comment.

Attaran has been a thorn in the side of the federal Conservative government for years, waging a series of successful court battles to gain access to documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees.

Last week, he won another round in that fight in the Supreme Court of Canada.

His work, which relies on federal access to information legislation, has put him in the national spotlight.

It has also made him the subject of information requests, presumably from political enemies hoping to damage his credibility.

University administrators, he said, had in the past protected him from requests for performance evaluations and expense reports.

In January, however, a series of sweeping information requests were filed. One demanded the subject line of all of his emails addressed to Parliament, the CBC or the Liberal Party.

Another requested all documents about him releasable under the freedom of information law.

Attaran believes the requests were politically motivated.

He wants the university to comply with the provincial access to information law in his case. But that law, Attaran said, includes an “exclusion” that places all records associated with a university professor’s research outside the reach of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

What’s more, he said, the law gives administrators the right to demand that any examination of records by the commissioner be done at the university.

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See? This is What I was Worried About…

Remember last year, when e-mail controversies swirled around academics at Wisconsin and UVA? I fretted then that the episodes likely would find their way into bad legislative proposals aiming nuclear weapons at molehills…and then along comes this:

[Maryland] House Bill 62 would allow universities and community colleges to deny requests for “data or other information of a proprietary nature that: was produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of a public institution of higher education; was produced or collected in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical, or scholarly issues; and has not been publicly released, published, or copyrighted.”

If that’s not enough, the secrecy would extend to “correspondence or research produced by faculty of a public institution of higher education on public policy issues.”

But isn’t a public university professor a public employee?

“Professors are different than bureaucrats, and there are issues of academic freedom involved here,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, the primary sponsor.

He said the bill was prompted by controversies in Virginia and Wisconsin.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has sought a former professor’s emails under a state fraud law, and a state lawmaker sought the same emails under the state’s open-records law.

This was painted as an attack on academic freedom, on the theory that making professors’ emails public would have a chilling effect on research and open debate. The Virginia cases are still in court.

Meanwhile, Rosenberg read a New York Times column by Paul Krugman on a University of Wisconsin professor. After professor William Cronon wrote a piece criticizing his state’s new Republican governor and a blog post on a group pushing conservative legislation, Republicans filed a public-records request for his email.

This, too, was painted as an attack on academic freedom, even though some of Cronon’s emails were turned over and nothing came of it.

Climate FOI Requests Continue to Create Controversy

A coalition of advocacy groups has asked the University of Virginia to shield some climate change research papers sought under an open records request to the school earlier this year.

That appeal comes in an April 14 letter that urges university officials to balance “the interests in public disclosure against the public interest in academic freedom” in weighing the record request from the American Tradition Institute and others.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, the Union of Concerned scientists and the American Association of University Professors are among the interest groups that jointly issued the letter.

This dispute is the latest chapter of a saga that began when Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli demanded similar records from U.Va. in a subpoena-like order to the university seeking materials linked to the grant-funded research of former school professor Michael Mann, a scientist whose climate change conclusions have been alternately lauded and denounced.

His initial demand largely was rejected by a Circuit Court judge in August, through Cuccinelli has appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, a revised record demand from the attorney general that the university opposes is pending in circuit court.


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I Think I Described An FOI Request As Leaving “Powder Burns”….

A new piece on the FOI-academic freedom debate from Miller-McClune….

The more I read my own quotes on this issue, the more I recognize what years in academia has done to my brain, for good, and for ill. I tend to overanalyze issues like these when interesting academic questions exists, even if I think they are no more than than — interesting academic questions, the stuff of cocktail parties, tweed coats and good theoretical conversations.

At the end of the day, these are FOI requests, like every other. I support FOI and FOI requesters. Why can’t I just say that?

Because, at the end of the day, such naked partisanship makes me uncomfortable. Yeah. That’s what it is, and it’s my problem, I know. But that’s what it is.

I see FOI in general as this constantly endangered creature, one that any number of interest groups, regulated industries, non-profit associations, to say nothing of public officials from governors to dog catchers would throw dirt on tomorrow with glee, if only they could. And what prevents that?

The bipartisan view that FOI is a good thing, a value worth preserving. Nurturing and maintaining that value when political parties are lobbing these sorts of requests at each other is tougher than ever.

But that’s all academic meandering. See what I mean?

Charles