Professor returns to court in case against University of Regina

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Crowdfunding the academic freedom that the U of R claims to hold dear. Website Screenshot via GoFundMe

Emily Eaton is unrelenting in finding out where the research paper trail leads

By Adeoluwa Atayero, Staff Writer

Associate Professor of Geography, Dr. Emily Eaton, returns to court on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 10 a.m. for the next phase of her ongoing trial against the University of Regina. Eaton made headlines last spring when she requested to know who was funding an oil and gas research being conducted at the university. Eaton’s official request for documents related to fossil fuel research work at the university and the parties involved in its funding dates back to Nov. 7, 2017. Eaton requested four pieces of information crucial to the nature of her research: the titles of the research projects, the amount of money being used for the research projects, the department of faculty receiving the funding, and the person or company giving the funding. Her request was denied and resulted in a legal battle as the University remained steadfast in its decision to not disclose the company supplying the research money, and those receiving it.

In May 2019, the university’s request to present the documents confidentially was ruled against by Justice Meghan McCreary with the Court of Queen’s Bench. The Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP) was cited by the university as their defence for wanting to release only the titles of the project and the amount of money involved, but not the agency behind the funds. The case, which was supposed to go to court at the end of Aug. 2019, was adjourned because Eaton’s lawyer was between firms. While awaiting the new court date, Eaton was optimistic that the university would release the documents and bring an end to the legal drama.

“I was hopeful that the university would come to its senses in the meantime. For example, my colleague, Patricia Elliott, made a Freedom of Information request to the provincial government and she was also going to court against the government to get the documents. However, they came to their senses and handed their documents in a few days before the court date. I was really hoping in the long interim period that the university would understand that its case is very weak and hand over the documents without the expense of the hearing,” says Eaton.

Expenses are a huge part of every legal case and this one is no different. To help cover her legal fees for the hearing, Eaton created a GoFundme page which has raised 1,200 dollars. The Canadian Association of University Teachers passed a resolution in the fall which donated another 1,200 dollars to her cause.

“I do expect to use up all of that money in this court case but the university is spending more than that because they have more expensive lawyers. However, I do not want to over-fundraise so I will wait and see what the bills are like.”

Eaton is hopeful that the case will end in her favour after the decision on the 26th. However, she mentioned that the financial burden of a legal case of this magnitude is a lot for a private citizen. This brings to light one of the many issues with the Freedom of Information laws where the onus is on the person requesting the information to take whomever they are requesting information from to court.

“Because the privacy commissioner does not have the power to compel, it is very easy for public institutions in Saskatchewan to simply ignore the recommendations of the privacy commissioner, which is what happened in this case,” said Eaton.

The university flouted the recommendations of Ronald Kruzeniski, the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner, to make the information Eaton requested available on the grounds that they fundamentally disagreed with his interpretation of the FOIP act. Administration maintain that the donor(s) and recipients of the funds are not covered in the FOIP act because they are details of academic research. Executive Director of University Governance and Head of Access to Information and the Protection of Privacy, Glenys Sylvestre, penned a letter to the commissioner following his recommendations where she referred to a meeting held at his office on Nov. 21, 2019.

Sylvestre states that the university “attempted to provide further explanation and context with respect” and does “not intend to repeat those submissions here, other than to respectfully state that the U of R does not concur with the analysis contained in the report.”

Eaton mentioned, however, that even in the midst of the legal brouhaha she has heard or received nothing but support from her colleagues. Eaton had this to say: “the administration cannot punish me for doing this because we do have academic freedom and academic freedom is meant to protect professors in their pursuit of research and lines of inquiry. Things have been fine so far but of course, things would be better if I was not pursuing a case against my employer. It does make for some awkward moments.”

She also noted that she has received messages from people off campus who are happy that she is pursuing this case. She believes this support comes because of what the case signifies at its core.

“What it comes down to is whether it should be possible in public research institutions that are at least in part funded by public dollars to engage in secret research or not. The information I was requesting was not the findings of the research or other sensitive information. This is the most basic information that you would need in order to have a picture of what types of research is happening at the university. If the university feels like they cannot reveal this information, they are taking a policy stand that a public institution is open to secret research being conducted by private funders. That is not a position we have all agreed to as an academy. If that is the position the university wants to take, it ought to make that a policy and make it go through an approval process. I don’t think the university has the consent for that type of policy.”

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