I have to admit, that as the daughter of two former college professors, the flap over using FOIA to gain access to professors' emails makes me a bit queasy.
I know. Sounds hypocritical, doesn't it?
Part of it is disbelief. Deep-seated childhood memories of boredom at the dinner table as they talked on and on about their work makes it hard for me to believe that someone could actually be interested in what they had to say.
More seriously, I also know that that their job was to explore issues. To poke, to prod, to mull, to formulate. Their ideas and conclusions were ever-changing as they read more, talked more, learned more. They collaborated with others, dissected each other's ideas and commented critically about historical events and current developments.
Open records laws tend to protect that kind of deliberation and discourse -- think judicial deliberations or the "working papers" exemption.
It's also a little odd to me that my mother's notes (she taught in the days before email) would not be subject to FOIA because she taught at a private college. My dad's notes and emails would be because he taught at a public college. Was her work any less provocative; was his work any more ideological (or vice versa)?
Here in Virginia, the emails of former UVa professor Michael Mann have been requested (and so far withheld) under the state's FOIA to scrutinize his work on climate change. In Michigan, the emails of a Wayne State University professor have been requested to scrutinize his work on union issues.
Despite the whiffs of discomfort, though, as an access advocate today, I come down on the side of disclosure: if an open records law applies to these messages, then they should be released.
As mentioned above, because the deliberative process is often protected, I can at least see why the law might be rewritten some day to exempt professors' records. Virginia, for instance, has a provision that exempts some academic research:
2.2-3705.4(4) -- Data, records or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of public institutions of higher education, other than the institutions' financial or administrative records, in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical or scholarly issues, whether sponsored by the institution alone or in conjunction with a governmental body or a private concern, where such data, records or information has not been publicly released, published, copyrighted or patented.
But if the law does not exempt professors' records, then they need to be released.
Further, the handwringing about political motivations behind the request is a red herring.
Why I want a record doesn't matter. I might want to post them on a website to effect social change. That's what the Wingnut Collective did in Richmond with records obtained from the police department. That was before the department suprisingly tried to get those records back from the collective, in part because the members of the collective were self-described anarchists. The members' ideology, though, should not have been a factor.
Of course politicians use FOIA to grind axes and gore oxes. In Virginia, Republicans used FOIA to find out when then-Governor Kaine was traveling for work as head of the Democratic National Committee. Democrats used FOIA to get at records related to then-Delegate Phil Hamilton's relationship to an ODU teacher's center.
FOIA doesn't want to or need to -- and shouldn't -- know why I want the records or what I want to do with them. I can copy records and distribute them at public meetings. I can publish a newsletter with articles about them. I can keep them in a file cabinet. I can tell people in conversation about what's in the record. I can throw the records away. I can potty-train my puppy with them, too.
FOIA itself isn't political or ideological. Records relate information. How that information is used, analyzed, applied? That's up to us. Sometimes we won't do anything. Other times it will inspire us to act, even in partisan or ideologically ways.
So, if college professors' records are open, they should be released.
Hey, if they had been available back in the 70s, I might even have had a clue about what in the heck my mom and dad were talking about at dinner.