Seeking Stories of Abuse of Open Records Laws

December 11, 2014
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

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.