Sunday, March 20, 2016

Article Reminds: Public University emails (and other documents) are not private

(The Union of Concerned Scientists) has been a fierce advocate for transparency, regularly championing investigations that rely on public documents to hold government officials accountable.

But over the past year, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge-based advocacy group that represents thousands of scientists around the country, has campaigned to limit the scrutiny of scientists who work for public universities and agencies through public records requests.

These scientists, the group says, are increasingly being harassed by ideological foes who seek to unearth documents that would derail or sully their work with evidence of bias.

“We don’t want to work in an environment where every keystroke is subject to public records,’’ said Michael Halpern, who oversees strategy at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, founded at MIT in 1969. “We’re trying to protect the deliberative nature of science. . . . Scientists need space to come to new knowledge, and to give critical feedback.”

But the group’s efforts have sparked tensions with other open-government advocates, who have argued that it risks opening loopholes that could make it easier for officials and agencies to hide information from the public.

“It’s just gibberish to say these laws stifle research,” said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’s freedom of information committee. “These are government scientists funded by taxpayers, and the public is entitled to see what they’re working on.”

The dispute centers on the proper balance between academic freedom and the transparency of public institutions, and has escalated as a growing number of scientists, typically those who research controversial topics such as climate change, receive public records requests.

The requests often seek e-mails between scientists in hopes of exposing ideological bias or a political agenda. While open records laws vary from state to state, the controversy primarily affects researchers at public universities or those involved in projects that receive public funding.

Critics say that many of the requests abuse the spirit of open records laws and threaten to stifle research. They also make it harder for public universities to conduct controversial research and attract top faculty, compared with private universities where scientists aren’t generally subject to open records laws, they say...

Full story at

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