Seeking Stories of Abuse of Open Records Laws

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | December 11, 2014, 12:55 pm EDT
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Have you or your university or government colleagues been targeted with intrusive federal or state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests? If so, I’d like to hear from you. You can tweet @halpsci or send me an email or, if you prefer to be anonymous, fill out this form. You can also feel free to call me at 202.331.5452.

Open records laws are obviously critical for people to learn more about how governments are making decisions. But they shouldn’t be used to harass researchers and shut down conversation.

With growing regularity, those who disagree with a scientist’s published research (or don’t like her entire field of study) are submitting FOIA requests for all material in a public university’s possession: emails, draft papers, even handwritten notes. As many have recognized, this has the potential to harm the scientific process by chilling speech and discouraging scientists from tackling contentious topics.

Open records laws are a great tool to hold government officials accountable--but when misused, they can also chill speech. Help us explore how academics are being targeted with intrusive open records requests. Cartoon via the Union of Concerned Scientists

Open records laws are a great tool to hold government officials accountable–but when misused, they can also chill speech. Help us explore how academics are being targeted with intrusive open records requests. Cartoon via the Union of Concerned Scientists

This issue has been most visible recently in regard to climate science, where universities in several states have received FOIA requests for all of the emails the certain scientists have ever written. Some universities are pushing back, but laws and privacy protections vary by state. The case in Virginia, which went to the state’s supreme court, led to a full-day symposium at George Washington University to examine the tension between academic freedom and state open records laws.

There have been attacks on researchers in other fields across the political spectrum. Animal rights activists, for example, relentlessly went after the correspondence of a psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences professor at UCLA, prompting the university to produce guidelines to protect faculty records. A gay rights group sought the emails of a political scientist at the University of Virginia whose legal writings related to religious freedom the organization did not like.

On the other side, the Republican Party of Wisconsin sought the emails of a renown University of Wisconsin history professor who was writing about the state’s caustic conversation around collective bargaining rights. A conservative group in Michigan similarly went after the correspondence of labor studies professors.

Companies have gotten in on the game, too. A mining company (unsuccessfully) sought the raw data, draft documents, and peer review commentary of a West Virginia University professor who was investigating connections between mountaintop removal mining and cancer.

These are some of the few cases of which I am aware, but I know there are more out there.

To truly solve this problem, we need to get a handle on its scope, and understand what methods have been used to protect researchers. If you know of situations where people outside your university have attempted to use open records laws to seek academics’ private records on any issue, please contact me, or leave a comment below. I’m equally interested in targets who are scientists and non-scientists.

We’ll be discussing these issues in detail at a session at the February 2015 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Thanks for your help.

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  • Eli Rabett

    Suspect that the largest number of FOIA requests to scientists are in the pharma/health science areas. For NASA, the largest number are concerned with commercial contracts.

  • Michael Halpern

    Read the post, and get the chip off the ol’ shoulder, my friend! I’m happy to report on all kinds of misuse of open records laws, regardless of the intentions of the requester. Please do send along any information you have and I’ll be happy to look into it.

    • Les Johnson

      I have given you references. Greenpeace did FOIA on Micheals, Legates, Soon and Baliunas.
      They have also done FOIA on the chemical scientists, nuclear scientists, GMO scientists etc.
      I look forward to seeing these in your report.

      • Victor Venema

        That is a fortunately circumstance. That means that both sides of the climate “debate” have a reason to stop the political interference with science, to protect the Freedom of Science not matter how inconvenient the message and to stop the harassment of scientists. Why don’t we make a deal?

  • Mike Mangan

    Man who makes his living inflating imaginary crisis of “scientific harassment” asks for help so he can continue to make his mortgage and car payment. Just like Rolling Stone finds frat rape, I’m sure Michael will find lots of juicy, totally anonymous stories confirming his point.

  • Les Johnson

    You might want to look at Greenpeace, and everything they hate. Lots of FOIA from them alone. I am guessing hundreds (1000s?) of FOIA on scientists in climate, nuclear, GMO, chemical, energy etc.

    For climate, I get FOIA by Greenpeace for Micheals, Legates, Soon, Baliunas. That is a cursory look.

    Of course, this is probably not what you are looking for, is it? It kinda ruins the message.

  • Mike Mangan

    Don’t want “harassment?” Don’t take taxpayer money. You’ve hopelessly politicized most fields of science. Mind if we ask for a little transparency? Especially in the morass known as “climate science?”

  • Victor Venema

    This blog post of Climate and Stuff lists a large number of FOIA harassment cases. Also Skeptical Science provides a number of examples:

    The requesters demanded access to both raw temperature station data and
    any related confidentiality agreements. The Review found evidence that
    this was an organized campaign (one request asked for information
    “involving the following countries: [insert 5 or so countries that are
    different from ones already requested]”). The Review says “such
    orchestrated campaigns [have] literally overwhelming impacts on small
    research units.”

    In Germany the Freedom of Research and Science is guaranteed in the constitution. FOIA requests can therefore not be made for scientists as this can be used as punishment of inconvenient results for political reasons.

    It is also not necessary, the product of science is a paper or a dataset. These should be studied. A paper should contain all the details needed to reproduce it. How the paper came to be is irrelevant, except for cases of fraud which the scientific community itself deals with. If only because it normally needs scientists to judge whether something is wrong. That is hardly a task for a judge.