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    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    FOI loopholes can be weaponized

    Like Michele Jacklin, I also strongly support the public’s right to access public records. As a history professor, I could not do my job without this core element of a democratic system. What Jacklin ignores, however, is how some people take advantage of loopholes in Connecticut’s FOI law to weaponize it. I should know. It happened to me.

    My research and teaching focuses on historical denialism. My colleagues around the globe use our work email addresses to exchange ideas and collaborate. For some people, however, this research cuts against their political agenda. To harass us, they’ve used Connecticut’s FOI law to demand from UConn, for example, “All emails with the word “Jeff” between 2015-2020” or “All emails with the word “Korea” between 2015-2020.” I know quite a few “Jeffs” professionally and personally, and I teach Korean history. As a result, I had to comb through roughly 10,000 pages of old email to ensure that any other names and any other information threaded into emails with “Jeff” or “Korea” were redacted. If I hadn’t, someone regularly in my emails could get harmed. That includes my colleague in Japan whose museum was fire-bombed.

    In the past 10 years, there have been no fewer than three sustained year-long attempts to target my work emails to try to intimidate me and dissuade me from doing my work. One instance led to a FOI Commission hearing where the complainant failed to show up — a sorry end to a months’ long unpleasant experience; a waste of time and taxpayer money for UConn’s lawyers handling the case; and a massive loss of the time and energy I could have spent to do my job — teaching and research. In the end, simply by pursuing his FOI request, the complainant got what he wanted: a social media frenzy for themselves that led to death threats against me and my family.

    In her op-ed, Jacklin dismisses what I and others have suffered as “little” evidence of FOI-facilitated harassment. To that, I ask her: How much is enough? How many faculty must suffer FOI-based harassment, and how badly, before you are willing to take the problem seriously? And why must public university faculty in Connecticut face the risk of such harassment just because they use their university email accounts or work-provided computers to do their job?

    As the AAUP’s Michael Bailey has explained, Connecticut’s FOI law wasn’t intended to cover faculty research and teaching in the first place, and some other states have amended their FOI laws accordingly. Senate Bill 394 will make it harder to weaponize FOI requests. That'll make it easier for me to go back to doing my job — research and teaching — without fear or favor.

    Alexis Dudden is a professor of history at UConn.

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