With increasing frequency, public university and government scientists report being the object of intrusive “vacuum-cleaner” requests for voluminous records, including email correspondence. Many of these requests are fishing expeditions to find bits of potentially embarrassing material. In other instances the purpose is to harass, interfere with grant funding or distract from important but inconvenient research to the industry launching the request.
The state roster below provides links to the public records law in your state together with a summary of –
- Exemptions to disclosure that may be applicable to your work. For example, 29 states have university-specific exemptions;
- Who can access records and under what circumstances; and
- Rules governing destruction of records.
Here is that same information and summary for the federal Freedom of Information Act.
For public university researchers, there are precautions and arrangements you can explore now to lessen your vulnerability to these “weaponized” record requests:
- Find out about using non-university servers which are outside the system of public records covered by these laws;
- Most state laws are limited to records of public business. Some universities consider research published in outside journals to be the personal business of the researcher and not the product of the university (whose name is used only for the purpose of affiliation). Find out about your university’s policy about the status of research vis-à-vis its definition of official business covered by the public records law; and
- Increasingly, on-campus research is conducted under the auspices of an affiliated institute or foundation. The applicability of public records laws to these affiliated entities depends on how they are organized and whether they are part of or apart from a public agency.