A new Rhode Island law is designed to protect draft reports and working papers of researchers at the state’s university and colleges from public disclosure.
The law, enacted late last month, modifies the state’s public records statute that governs public access to information from government entities. Rhode Island may be the first state that has revised its public records law specifically to head off attacks on academics at state institutions of higher education, says Michael Halpern, deputy director of science and democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
State Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, a Democrat, says she sponsored the legislation at the request of faculty at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island. These academics are concerned that those who deny that human activity is causing global climate change are filing public records requests about research on this subject in hopes of disrupting this work, McEntee says.
The Energy & Environment Legal Institute, a free market group that opposes efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, in 2011 began using public records laws in attempts to gain access to climate researchers’ e-mails and records, starting in Virginia. Currently, the University of Arizona is embroiled with the group over what the American Association of University Professors calls “intrusive public records requests” for academics’ e-mails related to climate science research.
Climate scientists at state universities aren’t the only targets of public record requests, UCS’s Halpern says.
“All kinds of researchers have been harassed by those who dislike their research results,” he tells C&EN. “We have seen numerous examples where activists on the left and right have attempted to use these laws to undermine the work of academics with whom they disagree.”
McEntree says Rhode Island’s higher education institutions “are not only concerned with the amount of time that would be taken away from research by responding to records requests, but more importantly, they are concerned with protecting the intellectual property of the research being conducted as well as the privacy of the researchers and subjects.”