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Eitan Arom: UCLA shouldn’t hide behind academic freedom

By Eitan Arom

Oct. 2, 2013 1:00 a.m.

We like to think our private communications are just that: private. They are insulated, we hope, from the prying eyes of politicians, reporters and corporate lawyers.

For professors at UCLA and other UC campuses – and indeed public employees and officials of all stripes – that privacy is not so certain.

On its face, the lack of confidentiality afforded to UCLA professors is disconcerting, but it’s a necessary measure in maintaining the integrity and transparency of a public university.

As government employees, UC professors and their communications are subject to review by “every person in this state” under the California Public Records Act. In the scrutiny applied to UCLA Professor John Froines by two Republican state senators, which the Daily Bruin reported on Friday, this “sunshine” provision can conflict with the principle of academic freedom.

But citing academic freedom as a shield from the law, as UCLA did on Froines’ behalf, is problematic. Except in rare instances, the excuse takes liberties with public records law and improperly restricts information.

While the university should do everything in its power to protect its researchers from undue invasions of privacy, taking an open and forthcoming approach to record requests is generally the wisest move.

Anything other than a reasonable willingness to release records suggests that researchers are dealing in furtive speculation and conjecture that, in the wrong hands, could be used against them. Naturally, this picture runs counter to the open and collaborative nature of research.

Froines’ case is a specific instance where UCLA could have avoided suspicion by promptly producing its records.

The UCLA chemist drew the attention of the pesticide company Arysta LifeScience in 2010 for alleged improper contact with anti-pesticide groups while serving as the chairman of a state-operated scientific committee dealing with pollution. The company filed a request for Froines’ electronic communications with representatives of certain activist organizations in order to establish if his integrity as chairman had been compromised.

UCLA was less than eager with its response.

The university took 10 months to comply with the request. The university chose to withhold records on the basis of academic freedom – the independence of professors and their work.

In the meanwhile, Froines’ case attracted the attention of Republican Senators Jean Fuller and Bob Huff, who sent a letter to Chancellor Gene Block on April 2 questioning the decision to withhold records.

Responding to the senators’ letter, Kevin Reed, UCLA vice chancellor of legal affairs, defended the decision, saying “scholars must be afforded privacy in (academic) communications in order to pursue knowledge (and) develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings.”

The argument that professors’ communications can be exempted from state law to preserve the independence of their research is mystifying, and even more bizarre given Froines was operating not only as a professor but an official on a state committee.

For one, the California Public Records Act contains no explicit provision protecting professorial or academic communications. Even when they stand on higher moral ground, UCLA administrators do not have the right to legislate or interpret legislation on their own.

To be sure, there are cases when academic freedom is a legitimate argument against releasing records.

Outside parties can use the language of the public records law to interrupt the work of researchers with whom they disagree. For example, the law can be used to request huge amounts of information that absorb the time and energy of the scholars who legally must comply.

The situation is not a hypothetical one. For example, animal rights groups have used the California Public Records Act to request research grants, medical records and multiple years of autopsy reports in order to disrupt animal research.

When record requests are used punitively and with ulterior motives, UCLA has a legitimate responsibility to refuse on the basis of academic freedom.

But otherwise, denying information to interested parties is counterproductive. In general, any reluctance to provide public records, whether the motives are pure or putrid, looks shady. That’s a sad fact of a suspicious world.

UCLA could have avoided the scrutiny of prying politicians by simply providing the records in the first place. If the records turned up no wrongdoing, Arysta LifeScience would have walked away with its tail between its legs, and if the documents had revealed a conflict of interest, the public should certainly know about it.

UCLA should not be allowed to set the dangerous precedent of hiding behind academic freedom.

UCLA walks a line between exposing its professors to attacks from outside parties and respecting the public’s right to know. But by being open and unrestrictive with its records, it can avoid looking suspicious and render baseless the accusations of critics.

Science should not be conducted in a climate of fear, but nor should it be protected from the public eye by a cloak of secrecy.

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