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Bill aimed at protecting university researchers from public records request is bad policy, CNPA tells lawmakers

Reports of researchers at public universities being targeted for public records requests by advocacy groups with an interest in the subject of the research spurred Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) to introduce AB 700, which exempts a vast array of records related to research at public postsecondary institutions from disclosure under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). The categories of information exempted under the proposed law include research methods, unpublished data, and all correspondence related to research whether or not part of the peer review process and regardless of whether the research has been published.

CNPA has urged Assemblywoman Friedman to reconsider her approach to AB 700, pointing to the fact that by allowing broad withholding of records, individuals who engage in questionable research practices or allow their research to be improperly influenced by outsiders are also protected. In just the past several weeks, journalists for the Washington Post and ProPublica Illinois have used public records to uncover stories of influence by industry groups over research and researcher misconduct that harmed children.

Existing law includes dozens of exemptions, including the so-called “catch-all” exemption that allows public agencies to withhold documents when the public interest keeping documents private outweighs the public interest in disclosure. CNPA’s believes that when any new exemption to the CPRA is being considered, the threshold determination must be whether a specific problem exists that is not already covered by an existing exemption. Only once that initial determination is made should a new exemption be considered, and even then, the new exemption must be narrowly tailored to address only the specific problem at hand.

In a letter opposing AB 700, CNPA told lawmakers “[t]o the extent a new exemption to the CPRA is needed, it should be narrowly drawn to specifically address only the circumstances that are identified and which existing law fails to protect. Toward this end, AB 700 falls short.” CNPA has committed to continuing to work with the author on narrowing the scope of the bill so that it is not harmful to the public’s right to know what government agencies are doing on its behalf. AB 700 will be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, April 2.

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