The prolific public radio show On The Media last week explored how open records laws are used to disrupt public interest research at public universities and examined the challenges of creating laws that allow for scrutiny while protecting free speech. The reporter, Alana Casanova-Burgess, treated the issue with the complexity it deserves, and in the days since, I’ve heard from several professors around the country by email and phone.
In case you haven’t followed the issue, a recap: companies and activists increasingly seek private correspondence of public university researchers through open records requests, hoping to find information they can take out of context to confuse the public and discourage public interest research. North Dakota and Rhode Island recently modernized their open records laws, and a California legislator introduced a bill to improve California’s law. The legislation was recently put on hold while supporters and opponents work out their differences.
For some researchers who heard the show, the chilling feeling was all too familiar. Several academics doing great research reached out to me to thank me for being interviewed for the story. Not one wanted to go public for fear of putting a target on their back.
“I teach at a public university in Texas,” wrote one scientist. “Although I don’t get any grant funding, I am super careful about what I put on my syllabus and in emails. All I know is how much I self-censor—not an easy thing for me to do when I teach about [public] health.”
One of my undergraduate degrees is in rhetoric and communication theory, so how information and misinformation spreads has always been a strong interest and area of study for me. And I’m so thrilled that the California legislation has helped amplify a national conversation about this issue. Through On the Media and other reporting, millions of people have been introduced to the issue of harassment of researchers. And through this public conversation, we are finding where there is common ground.
“You have a bunch of groups that all think they’re doing what’s good for inquiry and democracy,” Berkeley Law Professor Claudia Polsky, who wrote a recent law review article about this issue, told the show. “We’re all making the same core moral claim but it leads us to a very different perspective on records requests.”
That’s one of the reasons I believe there is a long-term solution to this problem: since we all want to protect research and promote accountability, we just need to agree, to the extent practicable, on the right mechanisms that can get us there. UCS won’t support legislation that goes too far and compromises accountability. But we still want to see laws that protect the ability of scientists to pursue policy-relevant research regardless of the results.