Walter Olson at Overlawyered (and reprinted at Minding the Campus) argues that the AAUP is hypocritical and left-wing in its approach to Freedom of Information Act requests. However, the evidence he offers simply doesn’t show this.
According to Olson, in the case of Douglas Laycock, “the AAUP was quoted in the press talking in a more vague and reticent way of ‘balance’ and saying it weighs in on particular controversies rather than taking general stands.” But this was not a change in AAUP policy. The AAUP has always taken the position that FOIA requests can sometimes present a threat to academic freedom, but that some FOIA requests are legitimate, so they need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The AAUP did examine the cases of William Cronon and Michael Mann, and found that these FOIA requests were aimed at protected opinions. Since at the time of the article about Laycock, the AAUP had not been able to investigate his case, the AAUP only spoke in abstract terms about the AAUP’s general position, which hasn’t changed.
Now, Olson thinks he’s found the clearest evidence of hypocrisy: “Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at Kansas University’s business school is under FOIA attack, accused of being too close to the free-market economics favored by donors from the Koch family of Wichita (who have also given much support over the years to the Cato Institute, which publishes this site). So what do you know? The state AAUP chapter is actually leading the charge against Hall.” Not many people are aware of this, but state AAUP conferences are actually quasi-independent entities, not under the direct control of the national AAUP. However, there’s no reason why the AAUP would necessarily object to this kind of FOIA. No one is demanding Hall’s personal emails about his beliefs and attitudes. Instead, the request seems to be about Hall’s role as an administrator running a center and taking funding from the Koch family, and the fear that illegitimate control is being exerted by donors.
According to Olson, “You might start to wonder whether the AAUP is going to hold to any consistent position at all beyond the convenience of the moment.” Actually, the AAUP does seem to have a consistent position: There is a huge difference between fishing expeditions aimed at finding offensive opinions expressed in personal emails, and examining whether donors have illegitimate influence over universities. The AAUP’s statement on Electronic Communications does not regard all FOIA requests in academia as illegitimate, for a very good reason. If the AAUP adopted an absolute rule against FOIA requests in academia, then it would make it more difficult to show violations of academic freedom and academic standards by administrators.
Contrary to what Olson says, the Kansas AAUP conference is not “leading the charge” against Hall. A student group filed the FOIA; the state AAUP objected on principle (and quite correctly) to the ridiculously high price charged ($1800, including a $65/hour cost for review) by the university for the FOIA request, and then opposed Hall’s claim to be immune from FOIA requests. Even FIRE in discussing the case notes the importance of “striking the right balance between transparency and academic freedom,” which a court will now do. The AAUP’s stand is no different, and it’s not hypocritical or biased.