Academic Freedom

Administration Trying to Bully a Professor at Indiana?

Officials would prefer to keep the university's presidential transition under wraps


Indiana University recently got a new president. A law professor there wound up trying to peer into the process of how the old president was departing and how the new president was selected. The university preferred that such information remain behind closed doors.

Next thing you know the professor was getting public record requests from a local law firm for his emails on his university account. The law firm would not reveal who was behind the requests, but there is reason to think that university officials are the ones doing the snooping.

The Academic Freedom Alliance has objected to this apparent attempt to harass and intimidate a member of the faculty by the university administration.

As a public employee at a state university, the university email of Professor Sanders is legally subject to public records requests. Nonetheless, such procedures can be abused and have been used as a means to intimidate and silence university professors and chill speech. It would be a particularly troubling attack on academic freedom if faculty emails are accessed at the request of university officials.

. . . .

The announced purpose of the Indiana's open records law is to facilitate giving "the people . . . full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees." It would fly in the face of this policy if a public university were to use the open records law to harass one of its own professors for bringing to light important matters of public concern about the conduct of that university's officials. Even worse would be a university covering its tracks by hiring a law firm to carry out a public records request to achieve this end.

The university should firmly disavow any involvement with or continuation of this effort to discourage faculty inquiries into how the university managed its presidential transition. The full letter from the AFA to Indiana University is here.

NEXT: A Reality Check for Progressives on the Rittenhouse Case

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  1. If the public records request is permitted, then it doesn’t matter why such records are requested.

    Hurt feelings citizen oversight or evil vendetta, public official+public records=fair game.

  2. "As a public employee at a state university, the university email of Professor Sanders is legally subject to public records requests."

    So, what's he hiding?

    It's not as if he, personally, has to go through his emails, I would think.

  3. You do see the irony, don’t you?

    You nose into our business, we nose into yours.

    One can inagine the reply the law firm might give to your letter, full of high-sounding phrases about your efforts to suppress legitimate public inquiries about the work that public employees are doing etc. etc. etc.

    And if the law firms inquiries into the professor can fairly be characterized as “harassment” rather than “legitimate,” why in the world can’t the same be said of the professor’s inquiries into the administration?

    It seems to me that what’s “legitimate” and what’s “harassment” here depends on which side one is on. The administration saw the professor as harassing them, so they simply responded in kind.

    Why shouldn’t the legislature’s definition of what’s disclosable and what’s not be the basis of identifying what inquiries are legitimate and what aren’t? What basis do you have for claiming that because you are (supposedly) good people and they are (supposedly) bad people, you are entitled to the benefit of your rights under the law but they aren’t?

    Inquire into others, expect to get inquired into. Welcome to America in the 21st century.

    1. Agree completely.

      As a faculty, Prof. Whittington might be thinking the prof in this case is the "public" and the administration is "the government". He needs to remember that to people not working in academia, everyone who works at a public university is part of the government.

  4. Sorry for being an extreme cynic, but consider this:

    1. I'm an employee who wants to do some whistleblowing and muckraking and make it all public.
    2. My employer -as a matter of internal policy, not state law - says keep certain personnel matters confidential. So....
    3. I hire a lawyer to make a FOIA request for my own e-mails I wanted to spill anyway.

    The reason I'm suspicious is that university officials don't generally need permission to look at employee e-mails. No need for them to go through an outside lawyer.

    1. The University has refused to comment on whether it hired the law firm to make the request for Professor Sanders's emails.

      Quite possibly, the University does have the right to look through all its employees' emails, but it knows that doing so would arose a tremendous amount of faculty outrage.

      The University has also refused to say whether it is conducting a disciplinary investigation of Professor Sanders, and it claims, falsely, that he is dislosing confidential university records-- quite puzzling, since nobody can tell what those records might be.

  5. Since when does a particular employee get public record requests instead of the public entity?

    Sloppy writing or a quirk of Indiana law?

    1. Sloppy writing I'd say.

      The request is supposed to go to the Custodian of Records not the individual.

      I wonder...can we submit a FOIA request to see the FOIA request?

      1. No insight into Indiana law, but in Wisconsin record requests are themselves public records.

        1. So is the request to see the request, and so on all the way down.

  6. Is the Board of Trustees subject to FOIA requests?

  7. Also, most private employees have long learned to put up with cameras in their computers spying on them; objections start at cameras in the bathrooms.

    The idea that people can involve themselves in public affairs and expect not to have the cameras in their computers turned on and their trash regularly inspected by their employers probably seems imcredulous to the average person.

    What sort of semi-medieval guild society have these people thought they’ve been living in?

    Today we all, all of us, live in the place where there is no darkness. Where did you think you were?

    1. Just today this advice to the average worker from the NYTimes, “Even if your every move isn’t being watched, it’s still best to assume your computer is monitored and act accordingly”

  8. "live in the place where there is no darkness."
    Do you honestly believe that?
    What did you ask Santa for this year?

    1. Out of curiosity, what do you think the phrase means?

    2. "What did you ask Santa for this year?"

      World peace
      Winning lottery tickets

  9. Poor Keith. Conservatives care not a whit about the principle of something like academic freedom or free speech. They are authoritarians. Is this guy being uppity is the only question!

    1. No, there's also the question of how degraded your reading comprehension is. Though your "using my preconceptions to filter reality" skills seem to be well developed.

  10. Questions: If his emails were sent on a university computer, why does the administration need to use a public records request to have access to them? And if they weren't, and he was acting as a private citizen, why would they be subject to a public records request?

    1. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are the standard process across the federal and all state govts for the public (including media, special interest groups, private citizens, corporations, etc.), to request public records.

      There may be fees the requestor has to pay (depending on the size of the request), and there are various - legal - exemptions including: trade secrets, confidential information received upon request, academic research, licensing information, medical records, anything declared exempt by the Supreme Court, autopsy photos or videos, social security numbers, law enforcement investigations, attorney information, personal files of employees, names of charitable donors, security measures for telecommunications, schools, and general infrastructure, correctional officer information, complaint information within law enforcement agencies, contact information for utility employees, or labor negotiations. (These are Indiana's exemptions and they vary from state to state and the feds.)

      1. I think what Jett's Pop is saying is what doesn't the University already have those emails if they were sent on a university account?

        Of course he may be sending emails from his personal (home) computer using his university account so incoming emails would be available but not all outgoing emails.

    2. Exactly. Somebody got some 'splainin' to do.

  11. The attempt to characterize virtually any use of FOIA requests as harassment or intimidation or other improper actions is deeply disturbing. Whittington should be ashamed of himself.

    This is a common pattern, though. Especially at universities, which really hate being reminded that they are government entities subject to public oversight.

    1. Using an law firm to hide the identity of the actual requestor does seem a bit suspicious.

  12. It occurs to me that an interested party would have a faster/shorter path to emails if said party delivered their request to an I.T. department or someone who could quickly collect, assemble, and transmit this information with a few keystrokes. Of course, maybe that party isn't interested in the content but is actually just wanting to send a message.

    1. Suppose the Professor actually sent some of those emails from his personal home computer using a different outgoing mail server like gmail or his ISPs ? Would those even be public records?

      1. Logically, they would be private.

        In 2021, all bets are off.

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