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Chilling open records request targets University of Washington faculty, threatens academic freedom
Open records laws — “sunshine” statutes designed to illuminate the dark inner workings of government — breathe life into the adage “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” When used to ensure institutional transparency, they are a force for good. FIRE has used these laws to uncover decades of malfeasance in higher education, to the benefit of student and faculty expressive rights nationwide.
But when faculty themselves are caught in the crosshairs of these statutes, the equally venerable principle of academic freedom comes into play, as these laws can force public university professors to disclose private academic records. At the University of Washington, where a series of recent open records requests target a broad array of faculty records, the university must decide how to best fulfill the request while upholding faculty expressive rights. FIRE calls on UW to protect its professors’ First Amendment rights by construing the requests to exclude research and teaching materials protected by academic freedom.
In early October, UW received several open records requests seeking an array of documents related to its Election Integrity Partnership, a research consortium focused on detecting and mitigating “the impacts of attempts to prevent or deter people from voting in the 2020 U.S. elections or to delegitimize election results.”
Academic freedom requires universities to protect faculty teaching and research from forced disclosure.
The broad, vague requests call for, among other records, “Any and all electronic files and all electronic communications regarding the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) and/or ‘disinformation’ or ‘misinformation’” from all UW employees, including professors. The requests also call for “Any and all electronic records and communications referencing, discussing, or regarding Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Linkedin, TikTok, Youtube, Reddit and/or any other internet or social media platform.”
Individuals have every right to request newsworthy information from public universities and their professors, especially concerning the important issues of election integrity and government efforts to address it. Universities, when subject to these requests, have a corresponding obligation to protect academic freedom — the principle that professors must be free to research, teach, and debate ideas without censorship or outside interference. Academic freedom “is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned,” the United States Supreme Court proclaimed, adding, “Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.”
Academic freedom requires universities to protect faculty teaching and research from forced disclosure. UW associate professor of human centered design and engineering Kate Starbird tweeted about how complying with these requests can “require 100s of hours of work to assemble” and the requests themselves “essentially look like a denial of service attack, attempting to make it untenable to continue our research,” and “will likely take years to complete.”
Public universities, as the guarantors of professors’ First Amendment rights, must protect these rights when broad, vague open records requests threaten to chill faculty research, teaching, and expression.
Professors required to spend hundreds of hours on these requests are left with little time to do much else. To avoid being targeted by such burdensome requests, they may reasonably shy away from controversial topics, like election integrity. Academic freedom, and the quality and breadth of academic work, will suffer if professors are forced to disclose all their unpublished manuscripts and private communications whenever they speak, research, or teach something remotely controversial.
Public universities, as the guarantors of professors’ First Amendment rights, must protect these rights when broad, vague open records requests threaten to chill faculty research, teaching, and expression. Protecting non-newsworthy drafts of unpublished work, classroom activities, and pedagogical discussions among colleagues is vital to preserving robust and frank academic discourse that forms the backbone of a university education.
FIRE has consistently criticized the abuse of open records laws when used to target faculty across the political spectrum. To aid universities in upholding academic freedom, FIRE’s Model Resolution on Academic Freedom and Government Transparency provides clear rules for administrators to follow when faced with requests for private academic records. Backed by First Amendment law, the resolution’s narrow exemptions are designed to preserve academic freedom without stifling the salutary effect of open records laws. By striking a careful balance between government transparency and faculty rights, the resolution provides a detailed roadmap for resolving these competing legal obligations.
Individual professors at UW and nationwide subject to intrusive open records requests should contact FIRE before spending hundreds of hours disclosing their private academic records. As always, we stand ready to defend your First Amendment rights.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).
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