I apologize if I’ve offended your sensitivities by using a powerful fake word in the title. However, it is critical that I strongly and publicly state that I denounce the deliberate and unprovoked use and abuse of FOIA as a baseless general discovery tool. I condemn its use as a means to harvest personal correspondences with the intention to sully reputations of others, lift lines out of context, our present skewed displays of word salad that target those someone disagrees with.
This is not a new position. I first publicly stated this in February of 2015 when FOIA attacks started against me, and many started to rumble about retaliatory action. I have always condemned these actions.
Such a statement is necessary because I have been brutally victimized by these tactics, and now I see people I consider allies adopting the tactics in the hopes of harming others. Here is why it is wrong.
What is FOIA abuse?
Over the last several years there has been a tremendous uptick in the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) use to obtain documents about public officials. And by “officials” I’m not talking about Presidents and federal agencies — we’re talking about average Joes like me that simply work for you, the taxpayer.
Under these rules you can obtain, virtually free of charge, all of my email correspondence, the stuff in my personnel files, any internal docs that you want to see. That’s a good thing, sort of.
FOIA is an important tool for transparency and access to information that could expedite discovery of cases of wrongdoing by those that work for government. It was intended to provide rapid access to information for journalists and legal authorities, circumventing what could be a costly and challenging discovery process.
But it is easy to see how this kind of system could be abused. This transparency tool has evolved from information tool into a burdensome, expensive weapon, abused and overused with intentions inconsistent with its original purpose.
Why it matters.
FOIA rules are being increasingly abused by individuals and NGOs to interrogate the personal correspondences of political or ideological adversaries — with zero evidence of someone doing anything improper. They have become fishing trips for infonuggets that can be twisted into misstatements or even full-blown media-enabled smear campaigns. With no evidence of wrongdoing and no direct suspicion of malfeasance, requestors ask for, and receive, a pinata of private correspondence, typically at no (or ridiculously low) charge.
But freedom of information is not free. In my case, a university attorney must read each email surrendered, redacting medical, student, or proprietary information. You can imagine that it may take days, weeks, or months to read through thousands of my (boring) emails.
The broad FOIA information grab is also performed to identify connections to other people or companies. The stated goal is to discover new associations that can be further investigated, regardless of any evidence of wrongdoing. On the nefarious side, cursory associations between a target and others can be hyperbolized beyond the context.
For instance, I was castigated in a newspaper piece for associations with the Bush Administration because I was cc’d on an email from some guy I never knew, never met, and have no idea who he is. The corresponding newspaper article made us seem like we were trying to figure out who was going to be the pitcher and who was going to be the catcher.
The other problem is that while names of students at my university are redacted, students’ emails from other universities were turned over to activist groups or others showing evidence of ill intent. These students now may be targeted for early career defamation, strictly because they emailed a laboratory or inquired about an opportunity. Plus, what student would possibly send me a note now, seeking career guidance, scientific information or personal assistance. It takes me out of the role of a public servant, because those in the public are afraid to be served. The potential for collateral damage is high.
FOIA and me.
I’m a pretty boring guy. I work just about every hour I’m awake and my research helps design the light treatments in indoor vertical farms. I also study the genetic basis of flavor in strawberries. Nothing too controversial.
But I do teach scientists how to be better communicators and how to connect with public audiences, especially in the area of crop genetic engineering (familiar GMO). I have a background in speech communication and presentation, so I’m glad to share what I know. This puts me on the radar of anti-technology organizations and individuals that feel a scientist teaching science must be a secret paid agent of an agrichemical conspiracy that is only spreading approved propaganda.
An organization named US Right to Know and “The Food Babe” Vani Hari have inundated my university with requests for my emails. They wanted private, personal conversations between me and other scientists, folks in companies, or any email containing certain broad search terms. Hari wanted everything containing the word “babe” or “Hari”. She got the resume of a postdoctoral researcher that was inquiring about a position in my lab, and her Ph.D. advisor’s first name was Hari. That’s not really any of an internet sell-ebrity’s business, and when she decides to make that young scholar’s information public, the internet’s trolls may harass her or poison her career because she chose to associate with me.
Together these two entitites have received probably well over 60,000 pages of my emails. The information has yielded no evidence of wrongdoing, nothing unethical.
That did not stop them from inflicting massive damage using the emails. This freely-delivered, publicly-disclosed information was touted as uncovered scandal. Lines were lifted from context, and published as damning evidence, yet they were innocent and appropriate in their context. There was construction of false narratives that led to significant career losses, harassment, and personal and professional hardship.
FOIA and Others
Greenpeace used FOIA to obtain documents from fisheries expert Dr. Ray Hilborn. It was shown, as he always disclosed, that industry covered the costs of some of his research. Greenpeace then used this information to question his integrity and veracity of his research data. US Right to Know used emails obtained to frame questions about the integrity of Mary Lee Chin, an outstanding dietician and communicator that always was fully transparent about work with industry. The same thing happened to public policy professor Dr. Peter Phillips of University of Saskatchewan. A few emails with people in industry were claimed as evidence of suspicious and entangled relationships, when no such thing existed.
In these cases personal messages were used to engender the perception of wrongdoing, even though no such thing ever happened. The goal is to harm the reputations of scientists that research or discuss controversial topics. It tarnishes a scholar’s web-based reputation forever, and pushes other scientists away from participating in public discussion for fear of misrepresentation.
We expect the enemies of science and innovation to implement any means necessary to affect those that support science and innovation. But a new trend is disturbing. People on the side of science and reason are now utilizing these same strategies to probe the correspondence of other political or ideological adversaries. Even those producing beautiful analysis of scientific situations have succumbed to the temptation of sneaking a peek under Lady Freedom’s skirt in the hopes of finding something that can damage someone they disagree with.
Wrong is Wrong.
I have to be honest, people I know and respect have initiated these information grabs. I have sternly said that I don’t agree with their efforts. However they have found some interesting gems. Turns out a number of individuals that are on the wrong side of science really were receiving motivating contributions and direction on manipulating conversations and information.
However, this must stop.
Those that take the position to push back against science bear the responsibility of their words. They stand in the way of progress and innovation. Call them out on that. We don’t need to know why they said it or who pays for their coffee or cab fare. Hold them responsible for bad ideas that they freely make public.
Besides, nobody really cares anyway. Aside from a few quick, “Well he/she is slimy,” there’s nothing that does more than confirm what we already knew.
People are disgusted with ideologically-based attacks on others, and are impressed with a civil discourse. Friends of science and reason must take the high road. Let others abuse FOIA. Let them cost public institutions the dollars they don’t have. Let them find nothing, but claim to find something.
Let the evil run its course. Don’t become them.
Instead, share the stories, defend those that are victims of broad invasive requests and those that endure the abuses from misuse and misinterpretation of their private correspondence. Stand up for science and scientists that are affected by these attacks.
The instruments of FOIA are too important to lose, and their use and penetration will be curtailed if the extreme abuse persists.
Together we must denounce its misuse, especially when initiated from friendly concerns against others. We don’t need to go there. The truth always bubbles to the surface. Charlatans expose themselves and we don’t need costly and invasive abuse of public records law to accelerate that process.