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Rhode Island recently enacted a provision that bolsters professorial academic freedom at state colleges and universities. The bill, House Bill 5098/Senate Bill 177, championed by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee and Sen. Susan Sosnowski and signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo earlier this month, explicitly protects the unpublished research of professors from open records requests.

The law strikes a careful balance between protecting academic freedom and preserving the purpose of the open records law. Open records laws are designed to instill accountability and transparency in government by requiring public institutions, such as state colleges and universities, to make their records open for public inspection. However, they have also been used to target professors for their research and scholarship on controversial topics like climate change and religious liberty.

Since responding to requests for voluminous academic records can be an expensive and arduous process, these fishing expeditions have a profoundly chilling effect on academic freedom. When professors are forced to disclose private communications, unfinished research, and unsubmitted academic proposals, it casts a pall over the pursuit of groundbreaking scholarship, stifling freedom of inquiry and diminishing the intellectual rigor of the educational community.

These concerns are well-addressed by Rhode Island’s new law, which does an excellent job of upholding academic freedom without blunting the salutary force of the open records law. It does so by updating the types of records immune from disclosure, clarifying that “[p]reliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers, and work products” also include “those involving research at state institutions of higher education on commercial, scientific, artistic, technical or scholarly issues, whether in electronic or other format.” While the previous iteration of the law may have already protected private academic records, this addition provides much-needed clarity — deterring the politically-motivated targeting of professors and obviating the need for protracted litigation over what records are subject to disclosure.

We commend Rhode Island’s proactive approach to this nuanced issue and principled stand for academic freedom. Other states can follow in Rhode Island’s footsteps by clarifying their open records laws — a goal easily accomplished by enacting FIRE’s model resolution and model exemptions. As always, we are happy to work with lawmakers, educational administrators, and professors to protect the flourishing of free thought in academia.

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