Transparency vs. Harassment

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Michael Halpern, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and climate scientist Michael Mann have written an editorial for Science, “Transparency and harassment.”

Open records laws hold Universities and other public institutions accountable, protecting against biasing influences such as we might see from funding sources. (See: Cry for me Willie Soon).

Over the last couple of decades, interpersonal conversations among researchers have shifted from the milieu of vibrating air molecules in a room (or transformed into electrical signals and transferred over a phone) to electronic form. Today, a very large part of the conversation ongoing among research colleagues, or teachers and students, ends up in emails or other forms of eCommunication.

Activists of any stipe have increasingly been using open records laws and regulations to access these private conversations, as well as early drafts of papers and other information. Halpern and Mann make the point that “[t]hese requests can attack and intimidate academics, threatening their reputations, chilling their speech, disrupting their research, discouraging them from tackling contentious topics, and ultimately confusing the public.”

They ask what is the appropriate way to attain transparency while at the same time not stifling research or producing an uncontrolled form of political weaponry ripe for abuse?

Not only is excessive and invasive use of open records procedure intrusive and intimidating, it is also costly. There have been several instances, cited by Halpern and Mann, of institutions spending significant resources on addressing requests for information, a cost that is paid whether or not the information is actually accessed in the end. And, when this goes to court, the costs go up. In one case, Mann’s institution was hit with information requests that came ultimately as a result of a congressional investigation. Halpern and Mann report that in this case,

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that excessive disclosure could put the university at a “competitive disadvantage,” and cause “harm to university-wide research efforts, damage to faculty recruitment and retention, undermining of faculty expectations of privacy and confidentiality, and impairment of free thought and expression.”

Halpern and Mann suggest that institutions such as Universities get up to speed, and get their researchers and faculty up to speed, to know how to properly handle information requests, “not to determine the appropriate response, but to help employees understand how access to correspondence could be misused.” If this is done, there may ultimately emerge a set of standards that fill in the logic gap between fair and reasonable disclosure and normal collegiate conversation. In short, Halpern and Mann are asking for a modernization of disclosure and transparency law and procedure, with the ultimate goal of creating legitimate public trust in science and avoiding the stifling effects of misuse of open records law.

The editorial is here, but it may be behind a paywall.

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5 thoughts on “Transparency vs. Harassment

  1. It once was common that “bureaucratic red tape” was the exclusive province of governments or other institutions to use in obstructing the actions of private citizens.

    In the Internet age, some activist citizens have learned to abuse well-meant accountability measures like the FOIA to turn the tables.

  2. That image is evocative, by the way. I spent a little time on YouTube searching for a commercial (1980s vintage?) that shows a man being pushed down a hallway by a flood of paper, but I couldn’t find it. The tag line was “it’s taking over offices coast to coast!”

  3. FOIA Laws are being abused…public scientists/employees are targets for this sort of abuse from “well-meaning” activists. Universities and public facilities have to come up with an inventive way they can legally deal with this or it will stifle good science and technology.

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