Should public universities be able to operate behind closed doors? That’s essentially what would happen if Senate Bill 1153 becomes law. In fact, the only information that would be provided to the taxpaying public would be budget-related.
We wouldn’t know, for example, if the university was improperly experimenting on animals — the very thing that Justin Goodman found in 2004 when he used Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to expose “wasteful and cruel experiments on monkeys.” If 1153 was law in 2004, Goodman wouldn’t have gotten the records he sought, and your tax dollars would likely still be going toward illegal animal experimentation.
This bill is the definition of government overreach. If it becomes law, we wouldn’t know what textbooks are being used or even what’s on a syllabus. And, as pointed out by Michele Jacklin last month, “if a professor and his or her students analyzed racial profiling in Connecticut, the findings of their study would be unavailable to the public and corrective action — if warranted — could not be undertaken.”
The argument for this bill goes like this: People are weaponizing the FOIA and harassing professors, which inhibits their ability to effectively conduct important research. However, proponents have offered zero data that would indicate how badly research has been harmed. All we have are anecdotes.
We don’t know, for example, how much money UConn has paid its lawyers to deal with so-called “frivolous FOIA requests.” We also don’t know the percentage of requesters who could be classified as “frivolous filers.” If the answer to that is anything less than half, this bill is moot. In other words, if more than 50 percent of FOIA requesters are harassing university professors, then maybe there would be a need for this bill. But we don’t know that. And I would guess that the percentage is closer to a fraction of a percent.
So open-records laws should be severely curtailed for a few bad actors? What if we applied that logic to everything? Let’s get rid of Medicaid because a few people abuse it. Let’s end food stamps because some people don’t really need it. Let’s dissolve the military because of a few instances of war crimes. Or, let’s eliminate the police because of a few bad apples.
If good law should be based on good data, as the modern saying goes, then this bill is the antithesis of that. Crafting egregious legislation based on the anecdotes of a few professors from a single public university seems like the very definition of poor legislation. On top of that, there are already numerous provisions within current law that protect public university professors and their work. Critics have pointed out that these current exemptions are piecemeal and should be streamlined. I agree, yet this bill does not streamline anything. It simply gives public universities carte blanche, which flies in face of democratic values like transparency and accountability.
I empathize with my higher education colleagues. As an adjunct journalism professor at a private university, I don’t have the same trepidation around FOIA matters because I don’t work at a public school. However, the potential harm caused by this bill massively outweighs its potential benefits.
The 3.6 million residents of this state (and the rest of the world, for that matter) would have no idea what’s happening at our 18 public institutions, just so a few professors could feel uninhibited in their research. That does not sound like something that’s in the public’s best interest. I implore the House of Representatives to vote no on 1153.
David DesRoches of East Hampton is a Board member, Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.