Md. bill would shield faculty research, policy records

MARYLAND — A bill introduced last week could limit access to university records under theMaryland Public Information Act.

House Bill 62 follows politically charged controversies inWisconsin and Virginia over freedom of information requests by conservativegroups targeting college faculty members.

The bill would exempt some records created by employees ofpublic colleges and universities. Primarily, the bill targets data acquired throughresearch that has not yet been published. It would also exempt “correspondenceor research” regarding public policy issues.

The exemption does not apply to financial or administrativerecords.

Under the bill, public records custodians could deny arequest if it applied to “data or information of a proprietary nature that wasproduced or collected by or for faculty or staff” prior to it being “publiclyreleased, published or copyrighted.” This would apply to any research even partly funded by a “publicinstitution of higher learning.”

Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, one of the sponsors of the bill,said there is a difference between governmental officials and universityemployees, despite both being paid by the government.

“They are academics,” he said. “They are not bureaucrats.”

Rosenberg said the bill stems in part from “Climategate,” inwhich former University of Virginia professor Michael Mann’s emails regardingclimate change research were hacked and stolen beginning in November 2009, thenpublicly presented out of context.

Climate changeskeptics falsely alleged that the emails showed scientists smudged their datato falsify findings.

John Curtis, director ofresearch and public policy at the American Association for University Professors,said there’s certainly a debate to be had on the subject.

Even thoughethical and legal issues surround the climate research incident, Curtis said itbrought to light that “maybe there wasn’t sufficient protection” for universitystaff members.

“The basic context here,” Curtis said, “is that facultymembers should have the ability to carry on a discussion — a conversation,essentially — using email about scholarly issues (and) public policy, withoutworrying that those emails are going to be taken out of context and used toimply something that really isn’t there.”

Jack Murphy,executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said he hasconcerns with the bill.

“It looks fairly broad to us,” Murphy said. “The way (it is)written, … it might restrict legitimate investigative journalists that aretrying to find out things that faculty people have written.”

Curtis understood Murphy’s argument, explaining that theresults of research should always be fully disclosed. However, he saidpublishing “scholarly deliberation” could mean disclosing partly formed or evenfalse hypotheses and leads.

Curtis agreed, however, that the bill might be too broad aswritten.

Delegate Rosenberg said he wants to begin broadly, then moveto more specific wording. Murphy said the MDDC would be working with Rosenbergto address its concerns.

“There are exemptions to the public records law, and in eachinstance the legislature has decided it is appropriate that this situation isdifferent than the norm,” Rosenberg said. “Therefore, there should be anexemption. These records should not be treated like all other records. We thinkthis is the case here, as well.”

House Bill 62, which was referred to the Health andGovernment Operations Committee, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.