Professors think a proposed bill could help with harassment. FOI advocates disagree.
A University of Connecticut math professor recalled in written testimony that over the past two-and-a-half years he has been subject to harassment and stalking by a researcher from China who was at UConn during the 2019-20 school year.
Fabrice Baudoin said that in addition to “hundreds of delusional or threatening emails,” social media defamation, and frivolous complaints filed with UConn, the individual filed voluminous Freedom of Information Act requests.
That includes more than 20 requests from 10 identities requesting the same information, including investigation reports about complaints, emails from UConn administrators about him, and all his emails over long periods, many of which include research ideas and draft papers.
“This harassment has taken a toll on my mental health, well-being, and research productivity,” Baudoin wrote.
He wrote in favor of a proposed bill that would exempt certain records maintained or kept on file by the faculty or staff of a public college or university from the Freedom of Information Act.
The records include those “arising out of study, teaching or research on medical, artistic, scientific, technical, legal or other scholarly issues, including any such records of legal clinics or centers, but excluding any financial records of such institution.”
Advocates from freedom of information groups oppose the bill, saying it’s too broad and that current law has sufficient protections.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, made similar points before voting against the bill in the Government Administration and Elections Committee on March 24. He commented that while he’s sympathetic to the burden placed on academics, “I’m confident that the current law is prudent and satisfactory, and that individual notes and that sort of thing are still protected under current law, and I believe this will simply make the number of exempted documents too broad.”
The proposal passed out of committee that day on a party-line vote of 13-6, with Democrats voting in the majority. It has since been reported out of the Legislative Commissioners’ Office and put on the Senate Calendar, meaning it could be referred to another committee, be scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor, or die without a vote.
Committee co-chairs Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, hadn’t responded to emails by press time.
The debate over disclosure
The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, which enforces provisions of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act and adjudicates complaints from people denied access to records, testified against the proposed bill.
Executive Director and General Counsel Colleen Murphy said this week there is public interest in certain topics public university professors are studying, such as climate change and the long-term effects of COVID-19.
She noted there are already exemptions in FOI law for preliminary drafts and notes, attorney-client privilege, and trade secrets, which could apply if professors were concerned about something with commercial value.
And in 2018, Connecticut passed a law providing a process for handling “vexatious requesters” when a state agency alleges someone demonstrates “a pattern of conduct that amounts to an abuse of the right to access information under the Freedom of Information Act or an interference with the operation of the agency.”
Murphy said this is a high bar.
She said she recently had a good meeting with Blumenthal and had met prior to the March 6 public hearing with people from the UConn-AAUP union, which represents professors.
UConn-AAUP Executive Director Michael Bailey said in written testimony the most widely known interference with scientific research has been in the politically charged areas of climate change, stem cell research, vaccination and abortion. But he said a broad spectrum of fields have been impacted by abuse of open records requests.
He cited a report from the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund that gave Connecticut a “C” for the way state institutions have treated scientific and academic records under open records laws.
Bailey added that one of the reasons he supports the legislation is avoiding “increased costs for using university resources to defend the university and faculty from frivolous information requests.”
Climate Science Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Lauren Kurtz wrote in supporting the bill, “Open records laws have a vital role in government transparency but, in the specific realm of higher education, they also can be exploited by bad actors to harass and intimidate scientists and academics whose research they dislike. State open records laws were initially written long before the advent of email and sometimes even the founding of state universities.”
She said responding to inquiries can consume tens, hundreds or thousands of hours that professors would rather spend doing research, while “universities simultaneously drown in legal fees that subtract from the public education budget.”
Kurtz added that academic work is already publicly available when published.
Sachin Pandya, a professor of law at UConn, testified that “FOI-facilitated harassment ultimately aims to discourage research and teaching about certain topics,” which can threaten the competitiveness of public universities. He added that other states have excluded faculty research or teaching from their FOIA laws, including Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.
Pandya said under Connecticut’s “current piecemeal approach,” records arising from research or teaching may or may not fall “within a narrow FOI exemption not specifically intended for such records.”
Richard Wilson, who recently served for two years as associate dean of the UConn School of Law, said junior faculty and faculty of color in particular “are concerned that their teaching and research on sensitive topics may be a target of a harassing or frivolous FOIA request.”
In addition to the FOI Commission, the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, with which The Day is affiliated, submitted testimony opposing the bill.
“The results of research and even part of the process, particularly if it’s funded by public money, should be readily accessible,” Jeffrey Daniels, co-chair of CCFOI’s legislative committee, said this week. He said the way the bill is written, it could even include the syllabus for a course or book list.
Daniels added that existing FOI law includes exemptions for personnel records and investigative materials, along with whistleblower protections.
“I don’t think this adds or subtracts anything from the current protections, or lack of protections, on harassment,” he said.
Other FOI-related bills
This bill is one of several FOI-related measures that have made it out of committee this year. One bill the FOI Commission and CCFOI support would implement the commission’s recommendations. It passed unanimously out of committee.
The recommendations include specifying that allowing individuals to copy records with a “hand-held scanner” includes a mobile telephone or camera, limiting the definition of a “governmental function,” and allowing special meeting notices to be sent electronically.
Both also support a bill that would increase the maximum fine for Freedom of Information Act violations from $1,000 to $10,000, and another requiring members of a municipal public agency to be visible when joining a meeting remotely. But they oppose a bill exempting the residential addresses of more public agency employees from disclosure.
Daniels thinks that over the last several years, he’s seen an increase in the number of bills seeking more exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act for special interests or purposes.
The GAE committee members who sided with the FOI Commission and CCFOI on all five bills are Sampson; Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott; and Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell.
“Every year, it feels like we are battling on a number of fronts,” Murphy said. “We view our role to educate and to try to at least make legislators aware of what the current law is, before they decide to make a change to it.”
Murphy said the FOI Commission is “never without bills to testify on” and this year is no different, but what is different is a proposal to give the commission more teeth.
“But it is a little disappointing when on the flip side you’re still talking about all the holes that might be carved into your laws,” she said, “so giving us more tools is wonderful, but with so many potential holes in the law, you’re not going to really need those tools.”