Bill would limit public information requests of professors

In Virginia, the attorney general, skeptical of global warming, tried to use his subpoena powers to build a fraud case against a climatology professor.

In Wisconsin, Republican Party officials sought the emails of a history professor, trying to demonstrate that he had misused his public account to stir political unrest during the state's highly publicized battles over organized labor.


Maryland Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, has cited these controversies, which garnered national attention, as he vows to prevent a similar situation from arising here. Rosenberg introduced a bill being considered in the General Assembly that would extend broader protection from public information requests to professors at the state's public universities.

But as it has elsewhere, the issue has sparked a debate pitting academic freedom against freedom of information. Rosenberg's efforts have drawn praise from academics and raised concerns among open-government advocates.


Nse Ufot, government relations officer for the American Association of University Professors, said some of the great discoveries in history were deeply unpopular with contemporary political and social leaders, but scientists were free to make them without scrutiny at every step.

"We fear losing the culture of deep knowledge if every email that's written is risking public ridicule," she said. "If we lose that, it doesn't bode well for us as a nation."

Rosenberg agreed: "There is a pattern of requests that appear very political in nature, and I want to make sure that similar harassment inquiries cannot be made in Maryland." He added that public information requests made for political reasons or to quash research "could have a chilling effect on academic freedom."

The bill would allow universities to deny requests under the Public Information Act — intended to ensure public access to government-held data — for faculty research and correspondence that includes proprietary ideas or data.

Rosenberg said universities could not deny requests for administrative or financial data. Maryland public information law already allows for requests to be denied when the details of an ongoing research project might be compromised, he added.

But some open-government advocates say there are instances when academics need to be subject to public scrutiny.

"We're concerned that it is too broad," said Jack Murphy, executive director of the MDDC Press Association, the nonprofit representing the region's newspapers, which frequently make requests under the Public Information Act. "What if a professor took up the beliefs of the far right and he might be writing racist things? It would be in the public interest to know those things."

During a recent hearing before the House Committee on Health and Government Operations, several Republican delegates also expressed concerns that the bill is not specific enough about what information would be protected.


"When I read the language, it seems way broader than the information you're trying to protect," said Del. Susan Krebs, a Carroll County Republican.

Del. Patrick McDonough, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, said the bill could prevent reasonable reviews of research. "This blocks the door for me to get information to see if this research is valuable to the taxpayer," he said.

Some academics see state legislatures as key battlegrounds in their efforts to prevent situations such as those in Virginia and Wisconsin. So they view the interest by Rosenberg, an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore and University of Maryland law schools, as a positive sign.

"It's certainly a step in the right direction," Ufot said. "Public university professors are public employees, but they're not government officials. There needs to be exceptions for them."

Several University of Maryland researchers spoke at the hearing on behalf of the bill, which is co-sponsored by Del. Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat.

"It would allow us to compete and win the trust of cutting-edge staff," said Patrick O'Shea, vice president for research for the University of Maryland.


Murphy said he sympathizes with Rosenberg's desire to protect academic discourse from political assaults and said the issue might be ripe for further study after this year's legislative session. The press association did not speak at the hearing, but Murphy said the organization would probably submit written testimony as the debate continues.

"We're just having a hard time figuring out how to make this palatable," he said when asked if he could envision a compromise version of the bill.

As far as Rosenberg can tell, Maryland has not seen public information requests like the controversial ones in Wisconsin and Virginia.

The Virginia case sparked a storm because it pitted global-warming skeptics against climate scientists. It began in 2010 when newly elected Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli II requested thousands of pages of emails and files produced by Michael E. Mann, a former professor at the University of Virginia. Cuccinelli said he was looking for evidence that Mann, now at Penn State, was using fraudulent information to pursue publicly funded grants.

Other bodies, including Penn State, have investigated claims that Mann improperly manipulated his findings, but all have determined that his research was sound.

The university fought the request, and hundreds of scholars lined up behind Mann, arguing that the conservative Cuccinelli was trying to instill fear among climate researchers. The Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in January.


In Wisconsin, the state Republican Party requested months' worth of emails from William Cronon, a University of Wisconsin history professor, after Cronon wrote a March 2011 blog post questioning whether national conservative groups were behind state legislation.

The request asked for emails containing terms such as "Republican" and "organized labor." The emails ultimately showed no evidence that Cronon was advocating for or against specific political candidates.

But academics again spoke out, saying that politicians were trying to scare scholars out of commenting on contentious policy issues.

Rosenberg said that by passing his bill, the legislature could set Maryland apart from such states. "It would send very strong signals that Maryland is a place where we value scientific research and academic inquiry," he said.