10 October 2011

Academic interest in impacts and limits of FOI legislation

As FOI requests have had an increasing public profile, and have been used in clear political contexts, it is unsurprising that the study of the effects of FOI on academic pursuits has become a subject of academic research itself.

Two recent efforts, a legal study by the American Constitution Society of US State and Federal FOI on how (and whether) academic freedom is protected against politically charged requests and a study being led by UCL Consitution Unit in the Dept. of Political Science on the impact of UK FOI on the university sector, are worth reading.

Both studies reference cases that have been highlighted here (along with a few additional ones) but the overall thrust is similar: how should one balance the interest in the public right-to-know against the interest in open academic inquiry and the efficient functioning of a public higher education system. (Any claim that there is no conflict is undermined by many of the examples given here and in the reports themselves).

The ACS report suggests that protection of academic freedom be given explicit protection in the law (as is the case in Canada, Scotland and a few other jurisdictions), as opposed to the current implicit protection that only partially (and selectively) works. The UCL study is more observational than advisory, but the same topic is clearly part of their remit.

The UCL study also encompasses the practical impact of the UK FOI law on academic and university practice, which, since the act has been greeted with mixed responses, is possibly more contentious than issues of academic freedom.

FOI legislation has important implications for academic research and communication is conducted, and the balance between positive effects (on data transparency etc.) vs. negative effects (chilling effects on academic discourse and study, disincentives to public speech, invasion of privacy) is determined by quite subtle details in language, case law and implementation. These issues need to be continuously looked at to determine whether the legislation is striking the right balance.