Emily Eaton is an Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Regina. Her research is about the impacts of the fossil fuel industry on all aspects of society, including education and efforts to address climate change.
When and why did you file a Freedom of Information request with the University regarding private funding of research projects on campus related to oil and gas, coal, carbon capture, and climate change?
On November 7, 2017, I filed the request as part of a new research project on the influence of fossil fuel industries on university research, specifically exploring what types of projects, questions and technologies are funded and with what effects. My research aims to provide a broad picture of both public and private funding for climate change, oil and gas and carbon capture research. The University of Regina is a significant hub for petroleum technology and carbon capture research. I asked for: 1) the funding source 2) the title of the project 3) the unit receiving the funding and 4) the amount of the funding.
The University denied parts of your request — the name of funders, and the departments or units receiving the funding — on the basis that the information constituted “details of academic research”, and was exempted from disclosure pursuant to s. 17(3) of the Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. What did you do?
I appealed to the Information and Privacy Commissioner in March of 2018. On November 28, the Commissioner released his report recommending that the University release all four categories of information to me. On December 24, the University advised that it would not heed the recommendations because it did not agree with the Commissioner’s interpretation of the Act, claiming disclosure would have a chilling effect on academic freedom. I felt the University was knowingly thumbing its nose at the FOI laws and was very angered by its distortion of academic freedom to support its intransigence. The purpose of academic freedom is to protect researchers so that they can engage more openly and genuinely with the public. It is not meant to be used by University administration to wall off the institution from public scrutiny.
You decided to appeal to the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench. What obstacles did you face?
My lawyer, Dan LeBlanc, appealed the University’s decision in January 2019. The University then submitted an application to have the proceeding held in a court closed to the public with arguments made confidentially to the judge. After we won against this initial application, we proceeded to an open court hearing in February of 2020. Luckily, I was able to raise significant funds to cover my court costs through a GoFundMe campaign and through a $12,000 donation from the CAUT. I extend my deep gratitude to CAUT and to individuals from near and far for standing behind university transparency.
The University continued to argue in court that releasing the information threatened academic freedom. How did you counter that argument?
Justice McCreary suggested that the University’s affidavits on academic freedom were argumentative and speculative and noted they had not brought forward an expert on academic freedom. My lawyer also argued that since they were willing to provide the funders that were already publicly available, and since the University does publish information of this nature for promotional purposes, they could not argue that it is only the disclosure of private sources of funding that would impinge on academic freedom. The University’s arguments on academic freedom were always disingenuous and ill-conceived.
On February 8, 2021 the Court released its decision, finding that that the University cannot rely on s. 17(3) as a blanket exemption to refuse to provide funding identity information, and going forward, must clearly demonstrate evidence why any specific research file should be exempt from disclosure. What do you expect?
As Justice McCreary made clear, her decision ought to result in the disclosure of most of the records that I am seeking. I am now in negotiations with the University over their fee estimate. I look forward to seeing the records and am hopeful the University will adhere to the broader spirit of the legislation, which Justice McCreary emphasized is to promote openness, transparency, and accountability. These are also values that academics uphold in their research practices through peer review, research ethics, and disclosures about research funding. This decision sides with an understanding of universities as fundamentally open to public scrutiny. This is an important decision in that it suggests it would be unusual for a university to withhold this information and that deciding to do so can only be done on a case-by-case basis when it meets other exemptions in the Act. I am hopeful of the University will no longer mobilize academic freedom in such a perverse way as to wall itself off from the public.