Bill to shield professors from public records requests is withdrawn

A bill introduced in the General Assembly to shield professors at state universities from politics-driven public record requests has been withdrawn after its House sponsor concluded no new law was needed.

The Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, which had opposed the bill at public hearings, hailed the decision by Del. Sandy Rosenberg as "good news."

Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, had introduced a bill that would have broadened the categories of information that universities could deny in response to requests under the state's Public Information Act.

He said the legislation was prompted in part by a case in Wisconsin where the state Republican Party sought the emails of a University of Wisconsin history professor in an attempt to show he had misused his position to intervene in a nationally watched dispute in that state over the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

Once released, the emails failed to support the GOP's suspicions, but some academics said such requests could have a chilling effect on professors who wanted to weigh in on public issues. Rosenberg said the purpose of his bill was to protect academic freedom from "requests that appear very political in nature."

John J. Murphy, executive director of the press association, said his group — which represents media outlets including The Baltimore Sun — thought the bill went too far.

"We thought the current law as it now stands protects academics from harassment," he said.

Murphy said the original bill could have protected material that would have been the subject of legitimate inquiries. "What if we had an academic that was expressing views that were close to a Holocaust denier?" he asked.

Rosenberg said that after receiving an opinion from the general counsel at the University of Maryland, College Park, he agreed. He said he is satisfied that current law already provides protection in such areas as unpublished research, draft articles and artistic expression.

"The bill's not needed," he said, adding that he would urge the sponsor of a companion Senate bill, Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, to withdraw his legislation as well.