Setting Disclosure Standards Through the Grant Funding Process

Friday, 13 February 2015: 8:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 210AB (San Jose Convention Center)
Alan Morrison, George Washington University School of Law, Washington, DC
In recent years, there has been an increase in requests under state open records laws for access to the research of faculty members at state universities, especially those faculty who are working on controversial topics.  These requests often include emails, which extends to those received from outside the university as well as sent, plus attachments.  These requests create burdens of review on the faculty person, as well as on members of the legal staff who must pass on the legitimacy of claimed exemptions under laws that were generally not written with universities in mind and often enacted before electronic records became the primary means of communication and storage.

            Requesters seek to justify disclosure on the ground that the topic is one of broad public interest and that there is a need to be sure that the researcher has provided all relevant information and performed the research properly.  Faculty, on the other hand, are concerned about the burdens, the invasion of their privacy, the potential for premature disclosure of their work, and the unfairness of having to turn over their work product to others who can use it for their own advancement.

            The question is now to strike the proper balance.  One way to address the issue is by revising open records laws, but that would have to be done on a state by state basis.  It is also unclear whether state legislators are in the best position to make these kinds of judgments.  The alternative, which I will discuss, is to have the federal agencies that provide much of the money for this research set standards on what must be disclosed when a grantee publishes the results of a research project, perhaps including a prohibition on the grantee making additional disclosures over the objection of the researcher.  This solution responds to the principal area of concern – academic research in the hard and social sciences – but leaves open other concerns about other requests whose main purpose is to burden the faculty member, invade his or her privacy, or embarrass him or her.