Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The End of 'Open Records' at the UW-Madison?

-Allen Ruff and Steve Horn

[The following piece originally appeared in the Capital Times, (Madison, WI) June 5, 2013]
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has requested that the state Legislature grant it an exemption to Wisconsin's long-standing open records law. The proposed legislation, if passed, would directly limit public access to university records and sources of information and diminish independent scrutiny at a time of increasing privatization and corporate influence over the state's flagship university.
In pursuit of the exemption, either as a separate bill or via insertion in the state budget, UW-Madison officials have circulated proposed language to a list of Republican-only legislators.
The two-pager contained a lead paragraph with desired language for a bill. It also contained a range of arguments for the increased protection of “intellectual property,” primarily the growing proportion of on-campus research and development now bought and paid for by major pharmaceutical, agro-tech and other corporations.
The proposed legislation is overly broad. If passed, it would inevitably lead to abuse. It states that an “authority,” undefined at present, “may withhold data, records or information produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of public institutions of higher learning in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on commercial, scientific or technical subjects, whether sponsored by the institution alone or in conjunction with a governmental body or private concern, until such data, records or information have been publicly released, published or patented.”
The UW-Madison sponsors argue that the special provision is needed to deter the theft of valuable research before it can be patented.
Their bottom-line argument? If a corporation was to lose anticipated returns on its investment because a competitor gained access to key information through an open records request, then that funder and others would take their money elsewhere — to a private institution unconcerned with public access. Researchers would follow suit, to the detriment of the UW and the state.
Wishing to curtail the number of records requests — especially by those raising ethical concerns about specific “public-private partnerships” — the proposal’s sponsors also argue that current procedures are too cumbersome and expensive.
In the course of our recent examination of the ethically questionable relationship between  UW-Madison and the dictatorial regime in Kazakhstan, we obtained records that could easily have been denied us if the current proposed changes existed. Some of what we received, including contracts with the Kazakh regime, had to be vetted and approved by the university’s legal office before it was released. Some of the material was redacted to protect privacy and security concerns.
Clearly, the existing procedures and safeguards work well, perhaps overly so. As it exists, the UW office in charge of fulfilling requests never has, and is not about to, give away any scientific or trade secrets.
Further strictures on access to records at the still partially public, but increasingly privatized, UW-Madison will not serve the public interest.
If the details of various “public-private partnership” deals can be withheld by some “authority” based on a subjective and over-reaching interpretation of the law, then what becomes of legitimate inquiry regarding the ethics and propriety of such ventures?
If requests for information can be denied, “until such data, records or information have been publicly released, published, or patented,” then the university’s proclaimed commitment to openness, transparency and citizen access, a key tenet of the “Wisconsin Idea,” will be rendered meaningless.

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