Academic freedom — freedom for unrestricted inquiry and expression in our research and teaching — is the foundation of our profession and of a free society. Most of us presume that tenure is sufficient to protect our scholarly and research activities. But increasingly, faculty members engaged in controversial research or studies, especially those that may affect powerful constituencies, have been subject to legal harassment.
Legal actions or the threats of such actions against faculty members for their research are examples that show the constant need for vigilant protection of academic freedom. In the past, it has been our understanding that if a faculty member was the target of a legal action, or even sued for actions taken while performing his or her job-related duties, the University would defend the faculty member. The case study reported below shows that the University’s policy in this regard may be changing.
Tenure alone may not be sufficient to preserve academic freedom. Collective bargaining provides an opportunity for us to guarantee that we, and our academic freedom, are protected.
A threat to academic freedom: It can happen here.
The University received a letter in September 1996 from a Wall Street law firm requesting information under the Minnesota Data Practices Statute. The information requested included all documents pertaining to all grants received by a faculty member during a 12-year period, as well as the professor’s personnel file. The request encompassed grant applications, final reports, data, memos, correspondence, telephone logs, financial documents and other documents pertaining to these grants. (The number of grants involved is about 35.) In addition, it requested all other documents relating to this professor not covered under the category grants activity. The name of the client and the reason for the request was not given. The University informed the professor of this request two weeks after receiving it, because it could not compile all the requested documents without the professor’s assistance. It also acknowledged that the request appeared to be harassing in nature, and that they had never received a request so broad in scope, aimed at a specific researcher.
The professor met with attorneys from the University General Counsel’s office about the request, and was told that the University intended to comply with it despite its breadth and ominous tone.
The Minnesota Data Practices Act affords almost no protection for public (state) employees, and it has no provisions for limiting the scope of requests that are broad and burdensome. It was made clear to the professor that the role of the General Counsel’s office is to protect the interests of the University; the interests of the faculty member are protected only if they coincide with the interests of the University. It is not the role of the General Counsel’s office to protect the interests of the faculty member in such matters.
It was clear that the intent of the request is to gather information to discredit the professor in some way; the General Counsel’s office stated that the motive behind the request is irrelevant to how the University will respond.
The General Counsel’s office agreed that the request is burdensome and decided to pursue a course that is cooperative, while attempting to limit the scope of the request. Should this prove futile, and the New York law firm threatens a lawsuit to obtain the documents, the representative of the General Counsel’s office indicated that its stance will be to comply rather than go to court. It would be up to the professor to hire outside counsel to protect his or her interests.
Why is this happening? The professor in question has conducted some research that implicates a major industry in a significant problem of concern to the general public. The professor has been attacked widely by the industry group, but has continued to conduct research on the topic so as to determine whether the industry is related to the problem or not. It is likely that the law firm represents some part of this industry and wishes to discredit and/or intimidate the professor in any way possible.
The request is a gross misuse of the Data Practices Act and is a quintessential attack on academic freedom. Without protection from requests of this nature, faculty members who perform controversial research, or research that treads on the feet of certain powerful interests, can be intimidated — or worse.
This is not an isolated case. Several other faculty members are facing similar problems on this campus and others. The University recently received a subpoena from a large tobacco company requesting all documents (very broadly defined) from any faculty research related to tobacco products and health, agriculture, prevention or education since 1950.
At this time, because of the size of this request, involving many faculty members over 26 years, the University’s interests and the faculty’s interests coincide. The University is seeking to limit what it has to provide the industry. If the research activities of only one or two faculty members were involved, this might not be the case. Depending on the outcome of the numerous tobacco-related legal cases around the country, individual faculty members may eventually be targeted.
Collective bargaining by the faculty can protect academic freedom and protect faculty members against legal harassment and intimidation. The American Association of University Professors and the University Faculty Alliance will bargain for guarantees of legal protection by the University in cases of suits against individual faculty members and from those against the University that involve faculty members performing their professional duties. In addition, the national AAUP offers advice and counsel — both legal and procedural — in these situations, and, when warranted, provides legal and financial assistance at the appellate level.
The Committee on Policy and Constitutional Issues:
Chairwoman: Roberta Humphreys, astronomy; Co-Chairperson: Eville Gorham, ecology; Co-Chairperson: John Chipman, economics; Irl Carter, social work; Tom Clayton, English; John Dahler, chemical engineering and materials science; Marti Hope Gonzales, psychology; Russell Hobbie, physics; Dick McGehee, math; Rick Purple, physiology; Paula Rabinowitz, English; Robert Sloan, geology; George Spangler, fisheries & wildlife; Steve Sperber, math; Robert Sonkowsky, classics; Craig Swan, economics