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PD Editorial: Don’t keep public research secret from Californians

If you send personal email from your work account on your work computer, don't be surprised if your boss calls you in for a chat. Many employers monitor what their employees are up to while on company time. And when you work at a state college or university, your employer, ultimately, is the public.

Some professors at state schools don't like that people can check their work using the California Public Records Act. They therefore support a bill in the Assembly, AB 700, that would exempt their research and communications from public scrutiny. Lawmakers should reject it.

Researchers cite what they consider “harassing” public records requests from political and advocacy organizations. Those groups ask for data underlying research and for correspondence so that they can comb through them looking for ways to discredit findings they don't like. Even if they don't find anything, a sweeping enough request can eat up a researcher's time. It might also discourage researchers at private institutions from collaborating with their public counterparts out of fear that they, too, will be exposed.

And?

College professors are smart people. When they chose to work for a public institution on the taxpayer's dime, they knew public oversight was part of the deal. Sure, that means some people will come along to pick through their work, and some of them won't even be fair about it. But if the research is done well, if the evidence does in fact support the conclusions, then it will stand up to such scrutiny.

Researchers worry, too, that competitors will take advantage of public records laws to steal their work. This, fortunately for everyone who wants a return on their investment in public research, won't happen even under current law. The courts have limited requests to published research and their underlying data.

Meanwhile, the broad exemptions in AB 700 would squelch important, less-intrusive oversight. For example, journalists and other watchdogs have used the state's public records law to expose sexual misconduct at public higher education institutions and cozy relationships with industries that might seek to influence research findings. That latter group has included soda companies, tobacco companies and even the NFL (concussion research).

If lawmakers and the governor chip away at transparency, it will set a dangerous precedent for justifying future secrecy. No doubt many other state employees can describe in tremendous detail just how annoying it is to have to answer public records requests. Why, if the public weren't looking over their shoulders, they could get so much good more work done.

That's not a good enough reason.

The opponents of AB 700 are a who's who of oversight groups, including the ACLU of California, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the California News Publishers Association, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

California's colleges and universities are becoming more like private schools as state support for them lags, but they aren't all the way there yet. They remain public institutions with public funding and all the strings that come attached to it. They should be subject to public records laws with only the narrowest exemptions.

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