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New report sheds light on how open records laws impact academic freedom

By December 15, 2017

In a new report on the conflict between open records laws and academic freedom, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) grades how each state protects researchers’ private academic files from forced disclosure.  

Open records laws — also called “sunshine statutes” due to their illuminating effect on the inner workings of government — empower citizens to request records from state and federal institutions. Unfortunately, they may also be abused to target public university professors, who are subject to such laws as government employees. Professors delving into controversial topics like religious liberty and climate science have been subject to intrusive and burdensome requests for their private academic records, which has chilled academic freedom by driving researchers away from such topics.

Some states have sought to protect academic freedom from such abuse by limiting the reach of open records laws to protect faculty members’ private research records. Additionally, many courts have held that such records are exempt from forced disclosure.

These statutory and judicially-crafted exemptions are the basis of “Research Protections in State Open Records Laws: An Analysis and Ranking.” Analyzing data compiled by my colleague Laura Beltz, among others, the CSLDF report takes an in-depth look into states’ academic freedom exceptions to their open records laws. Each state is graded on how much protection they give to researchers on an A-F scale, with the best grades going to statutory schemes that completely exclude researchers’ records from open records laws, and the failing grades given to those with no or extremely limited protection for researchers.

This information is useful for professors, universities, lawyers, and those making open records requests. We encourage our readers — especially those interested in open records laws and academic freedom — to give it a look.