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New and Improved Guide to Open Records Laws and Protections for Research Materials

Open records laws are valuable tools for government transparency, enabling the public to request documents related to state and federally funded activities. However, these laws are frequently misused to attack climate and other scientists who work on politically contentious topics in attempts to distort or undermine their research.

Our newly released fourth edition of “Research Protections in State Open Records Laws: An Analysis and Ranking” provides a detailed account of the open records laws in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. CSLDF’s newly updated resource comprehensively describes what scientists need to know about state open records laws and how the laws can be used to protect research materials.

These laws are continually evolving. For example, this year, states including Connecticut and Hawaii have contemplated implementing stronger protections for researchers, while other states – such as Maine – have unfortunately weakened their protections.  

However, even with established laws, court interpretations can vary widely depending on situational factors. Last year, for instance, the California Superior Court declined to order disclosure of certain videos of animal research, finding that the public interest in preserving academic freedom and protecting researchers’ safety was greater than the public interest in disclosure, determining that raw video footage without context would contribute little to public understanding of the research or the expenditure of government funds. Meanwhile, in another case the same year, a different California court held that a university had not provided enough specific details to prove that most of the contested academic records deserved protection, although the court did allow for preservation of a subset of records involving ongoing research. 

With our updated resource, scientists can operate from a place of empowerment and full knowledge—particularly if they are working at a public institution where they may be afforded fewer protections. The “at-a-glance” section of the guide also distills these laws into an easily readable table for busy scientists and researchers.

The revised guide highlights categories of research records that may be vulnerable to an invasive open records request and lists areas where there are ambiguities in specific jurisdictions. It also provides examples of how specific records have been treated in the past and includes tips to help scientists categorize materials that may be protected from disclosure and maximize the chances that their records will remain safe.

We hope that this new and improved version of our hallmark guide to open records laws, in addition to assisting scientists and researchers of all stripes, will help legislators realize the implications of not safeguarding scientific research, and inspire them to draft more protective laws.

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