UCLA adopts policy limiting access to faculty work

CALIFORNIA — The University of California Los Angeles has adopted a “set of guiding principles” seeking to protect most faculty “scholarly communications” from disclosure under the state’s public records law.

UCLA is interested in protecting researchers’ exchanges that occur before an academic project is published or otherwise publicly presented, said Carole Goldberg, vice chancellor for academic personnel at UCLA. Goldberg co-chaired the joint academic-administrative task force that drafted the statement, which was released earlier this month.

“We think that the public’s interest in free testing of ideas, the testing out of ideas is so important that we need to protect those communications from premature disclosure,” Goldberg said.

In a statement, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said some requests can have a “chilling effect” on faculty research.

“The statement is a compelling affirmation of our peer review system and the right of faculty to conduct research and scholarship on controversial topics free from political interference,” Block wrote. “I wholeheartedly endorse it.”

The university is citing a general exemption under the California Public Records Act that allows government agencies to withhold documents if the “public interest served by not making the records public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the records.” Under a balancing standard, this could “absolutely” apply to communication between researchers, Goldberg said.

The task force also developed a step-by-step guide for how UCLA researchers should respond to public records requests, in addition to how they should “manage their electronic records.”

It’s not clear what the new policy will mean for those filing records requests with the university seeking faculty emails. A university spokesman declined to comment on the record. When asked if UCLA faculty would begin denying open records requests for this kind of academic communication, Goldberg said “maybe” and that she couldn’t “predict the future.”

“We’re telling UCLA faculty to talk to administration when they get a request,” Goldberg said.

UCLA’s “policy or guideline” seems overly broad or general, said Jim Ewert, general counsel at the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

“If it’s asserted generally, it really doesn’t have a whole lot of credence,” Ewert said.

Under this policy, Ewert said there would “theoretically” be no difference between UCLA and a private university in this regard, and he cannot see the guidelines holding up under California law, although California’s Third District Court of Appeal exempted scholarly communication under the same general exemption cited by UCLA, he said.

The court denied the Humane Society of the United States’ petition against the University of California for withholding “records relating to the funding, preparation, and publishing of a study” pertaining to the caging of egg-laying hens in California. But that was a very specific case, Ewert said.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California-based First Amendment Coalition, said the issue of academic freedom and the First Amendment is complicated. He noted there are some who believe overly dogged records requests are attempts to silence controversial researchers, like those studying climate change.

“It can be a liberal professor that’s being attacked from the right, and it could be a conservative professor that’s being attacked by the left,” he said.

Marco Iacoboni, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Science at UCLA, said in an email that “we all” value transparency, but must also value academic freedom.

“Professors in public universities are treated differently than professors in private universities,” he wrote. “That’s because in principle we professors in public universities are ‘public officials.’ But from a scholarly standpoint, there is no difference between a colleague of mine at Stanford (who’s not subjected to public records requests) and myself.”

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.