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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    FOIA laws should exempt researchers

    My reporter senses are tingling. But for the first time ever, I don’t know if I trust them.

    Late last month, the state Senate passed two bills rolling back protections granted under the Freedom of Information Act — a law grounded in a foundational belief in the need for government transparency that I basically swore allegiance to as a young journalism major. But once I dive deeper into my outrage and predispositions, I’m afraid that I, and perhaps countless other journalists, may be clinging to FOI policies that are due for updates.

    It’s a knee-jerk and perhaps regressive reaction to think that any modification to the Freedom of Information Act poses a threat to the free press or any of our First Amendment rights. Instead, it could be the case that the very journalists who fight to protect FOIA laws — the ones who work to hold government officials accountable and often push for progress — may agree that overly broad policies that result in harassment or worse could stand revision, or at least review, every generation.

    For example, Senate Bill 1153, An Act Establishing An Exemption From Disclosure For Certain Higher Education Records Pertaining To Study, Teaching, or Research Under The Freedom Of Information Act, may be the basis for the protection we need in a climate that is increasingly hostile against trans people, abortion activists and providers, and those who are bold enough to conduct research in these areas.

    “The most widely known interference with scientific research has been in the politically charged climate change, stem cell, vaccination, and abortion areas,” Michael Bailey, Executive Director of UConn-AAUP, said in support of the bill during a March 6 public hearing. “But abuse of open records requests has impacted a broad spectrum of fields, including the research by the professor who exposed the Camel cigarette marketing campaign in the 1990s, to the publishing of how foreign governments are weaponizing their history to gain a political advantage by a UConn faculty member. SB 1153 increases that level of protection and we encourage its passage.”

    I see the protections for faculty outlined in Senate Bill 1153 as imperative to progress.

    There is a deep polarization in the United States that hushes our best intentions and makes it nearly impossible to interact with people from opposing sides in good faith.

    Research into trans issues, race, abortion, and other hot-button issues is necessary for us to develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. More impactfully, it’s necessary for us to write science-backed and informed legislation. Without updates to our FOIA laws, fanatics who disagree with certain research can exploit every policy loophole to target university faculty and harass them.

    University employees are not elected officials. They didn’t sign up for lives under a microscope the way governors, mayors, and legislators have. They shouldn’t be subject to disclosure that could jeopardize their anonymity or safety.

    In his testimony before the Government Administration and Elections Committee, Bailey pointed out that the language proposed in the bill gives the public university administration the “necessary tools to immediately deny malicious requests that only intend to harass, intimidate, or discredit scientists whose research or teaching they simply don’t like.”

    In a climate where governors are defunding diversity programs for public universities and threats to abortion clinics are steadily increasing, and a country that is in a deadlock on gun laws, it’s impossible to ensure the safety of professors or public officials whose opinions or research may draw far-right violence.

    Further, should researchers at public universities constantly fear for their safety, we may see a brain drain to private universities whose emails, research notes, and addresses aren’t subject to public disclosure. That trail of events can lead to a talent and experience disparity between expensive institutions and affordable ones.

    I also see the rationale for another proposal, Senate Bill 1157, to tighten the FOI law but in this case the legislation goes too far. Although the Senate approved the bill, it was pulled from the House calendar on Friday night after Republicans objected to the scope of the legislation.

    The bill automatically exempts disclosure of residential addresses of certain public employees, and while I see few journalistic benefits to publishing these addresses having access to some of the records of public officials, who are paid by tax dollars, is a crucial part of holding them accountable.

    A recent example comes out of East Hartford, where former OPM secretary and current city finance director Melissa McCaw owed $2,300 in back taxes on her vehicle and Middletown home.

    It’s a small sum to some. But without reporting from the Journal Inquirer in 2022, McCaw would have been able to traverse public offices without paying her fair share of the tax load.

    Public servants shouldn’t be granted any more privacy than private citizens. Doing so would hamper legitimate news reporting about property tax liabilities or criminal arrests while offering little protection to employees, according to Tom Scheffey of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

    Look — it’s public information for a reason. But faculty and public servants play different roles in our changing society and maybe we should treat legislation protecting them as such.

    Mercy A. Quaye writes a monthly column called Sightlines for CT Mirror and is the editor of CT Mirror's Community Editorial Board.

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