Professor launches legal battle with university
author: john loeppky | editor-in-chief
Dr. Emily Eaton goes to courts for release of information
As first reported by Jennifer Ackerman of the Leader-Post, Dr. Emily Eaton of the geography department has launched a GoFundMe campaign to support her legal campaign for research-related information to be released to her.
The campaign as of press time has a total funded amount of $8,150 of an $8,000 goal. The goal is to support a legal campaign for the university to honour a freedom of information request relating to oil funding and its effect on the university’s, in Eaton’s words, “research into the influence of fossil fuel industries on public education.”
The original request, made on Nov. 7, 2017 according to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, was worded in order to obtain data about the sources of external funding.
“All external research funding (both private and public) to the University of Regina including but not limited to grants and contracts. I would like the dollar amount of the funding, the funding agency/company awarding the money, the title of the research project, and the unit (faculty or department or school) that received the funding. A spreadsheet would be a sufficient format.”
According to the commissioner’s report, the university then discovered that the reason for this request was made in order to find out the influence of the oil and gas industry and during the process the university opted to withhold two areas. In the words of the university as published by the privacy commissioner, “You would not be provided information regarding the funding agency/company awarding the funds. Only the project title and amount of funding received would be provided.”
Under legislation, the commissioner can only make recommendations, of which a number were made in the report.
“The Applicant submitted an access to information request to the University of Regina (U of R). The U of R refused the Applicant some of the information requested by citing subsection 17(3) of The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (LA FOIP). It also issued a fee estimate to the Applicant. The Applicant appealed to the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC). The IPC found that the U of R did not demonstrate how subsection 17(3) of LA FOIP applied to the record. He also found that the U of R should not have issued a fee estimate. He made a number of recommendations to the U of R including rescinding its fee estimate as well as releasing the record to the Applicant.”
In short, the commissioner found that the University of Regina did not have the grounds to deny the data that was being sought under a section of the legislation meant to enshrine academic freedom related to someone’s employment. The University of Regina’s fee estimation (for context), according to the report, was $1,020.00.
The report was published Nov. 28, 2018 and Eaton was informed by the University of Regina that they did not agree with the commissioner’s findings on Dec. 24, 2018. Eaton said that she had been advised by her lawyer, Dan LeBlanc, that the university has since attempted to shift the process.
“We asked for an open court date and that was granted, but the University of Regina is making an application to change the process now because they want it to be kept behind closed doors and for the judge to receive the information from both sides confidentially and then to make a decision behind closed doors.”
Eaton said she had received positive support from students as well as other faculty.
“I got this letter in inter-office mail saying that my efforts to protect freedom of information have not gone unnoticed by students, so that was really neat.”
Eaton noted the financial support she had received thus far through the crowdfunding site, but said she expected to “end up picking up the difference” when the costly legal process concludes.
Eaton expressed her frustration with how the campus had thus far handled the request and the commissioner’s finding, leading to the need for her campaign.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that the University of Regina is spending its own scarce resources on this, including an expensive legal team, and I also think it’s really unfortunate now that it’s also meant that people from the public have had to spend their own resources on it as well.”
When asked for comment, the Provost, Dr. Thomas Chase reiterated the University of Regina’s position.
“We believe that the recommendations that were made are inconsistent with the recommendations made in other Canadian jurisdictions in the area of research exemptions and, therefore, we are where we are right now and we respectfully await the outcome of the Queen’s Bench deliberations.”
Chase said those inconsistencies related to “similar research exemptions” in “other provinces.” The decisions Chase referred to in a follow conversation included decision number PO-3084 and PO-2946. The first decision cited has a summary from the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario’s website.
“The appellant made a request to the University of Ottawa for all expense reports submitted by two named professors, since January 1, 2006. The University identified records responsive to the request and issued a decision advising that, pursuant to section 65(8.1), the Act did not apply to the requested records. Section 65(8.1)(a) is found to apply to the records at issue and the University’s decision is upheld.”
Chase cited the rights of everyone involved in the process in discussing how the University of Regina came to their decision to not accept the findings of the commissioner.
“There is the need to respect the academic freedom of not only the requester, but the academic freedom of those whose research details are being sought. There are also issues of proprietary and other information that can be quite complex.”
Relaying a hypothetical situation, Dr. Chase provided the example of information being taken by those outside the university, then using said details for their own “benefit” or as the Provost would put it later, “We’re trying to weigh competing interests.”
Eaton said that a number of supporters had to support the campain without their name attached for fear of their job security.
“Lots of people donated to the campaign, some of them anonymously because if they’re in a position where they don’t have academic freedom, for example, they don’t want the university (necessarily) to know.”
She highlighted URFA’s support and said that the university’s approach was in conflict, in her view, with the role of an institution and its members.
“This is a public institution, our salaries as researchers are paid, in part, by the public, and anytime I publish any of my research, there’s always a disclosure statement and it’s always incumbent upon me as an academic to disclose the funders of my research, so the fact that the university is claiming that they don’t need to disclose the funders of research that happens at this institution flies in the face of conventions of academia and also, the public interest of the university.”