You Have a Right to Information

By Hill, Theodore P. | Academe, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

You Have a Right to Information


Hill, Theodore P., Academe


Don't be deterred. You can use open-records laws to get at the truth.

Academic freedom protects professors from institutional censorship or discipline when they exercise their basic rights as citizens. One of those rights is that to examine official documents to see how public funds are spent and learn how decisions are made. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guarantees this right for federal records; open-records or "sunshine'' laws do so for state records.

Ten years ago, in the course of using the Georgia Open Records Act (ORA) to examine documents at the Georgia Institute of Technology, I became concerned about misuse of public funds. I made several state OKA requests to see certain of Georgia Tech's basic financial records, none of which were subject to disclosure under the FOIA. One request asked to see the "source and disbursement of funds to and from" a mathematical research center in the College of Sciences for the previous eight years, during which time the center spent millions of dollars of state and federal support. After many delays, the university lawyers finally replied, saying that there were no such records.

Financial documents eventually extracted from the university following persistent ORA requests suggested extensive misuse of public funds. When the chair and the dean refused to act. I filed a grievance against the chair asking for an audit. Three years later, resulting state audits found that financial records for the center "certainly have existed since [1991] and, not surprisingly, that the center was running annual shortfalls of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The audits also found multiple instances of diversion of university funds for personal travel, books, and even a baby shower. The Georgia attorney general's review of travel expenses in the School of Mathematics labeled the abuse of travel expenses at Georgia Tech "systemic" and declared that Georgia Tech suffered from "lack of institutional control" over travel and expense accounts. The chair of the mathematics department was required to step down and to repay thousands of dollars.

When I initially asked to review university financial records, however, Georgia Tech administrators and attorneys repeatedly blocked my attempts and retaliated against me for using the ORA. They improperly demanded prepayments, withheld documents for more than a year, falsely claimed "attorney-client privilege," and denied the existence of records in what the grievance committee called "patently false" statements.

Soon to-be administrators accused me, in widely disseminated e-mail messages and in the press, of cowardice, invasion of privacy, and even racism (some of the subjects of my open-records requests were minorities). When the university provost defended the attacks as freedom of speech. I filed a defamation lawsuit against one of the perpetrators. Georgia Tech officials then informed the state's Department of Administrative Services that I was "something of an activist," having obtained many records through the ORA. The administrative services department provided legal defense funds for the defendant and his $60,000 payment to me to settle the lawsuit, even after the judge ruled that the defendant was not acting in the course and scope of his employment. …

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