California is fighting over the future of freedom of information laws

In 2010, two University of California, Santa Cruz researchers found themselves in an unexpected situation. Part of a team studying the impacts of lead poisoning on the endangered California condor, they received a request for emails exchanged between members of their research group over a roughly five-year period. Specifically, the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation wanted to see all correspondence that contained the word “lead” in combination with other words like “condor,” “bullet,” and “blood.” The state had previously enacted a partial ban on the use of lead ammunition in condor habitat and at the time, wildlife advocates were pushing for broader prohibitions. The researchers, Donald Smith and Myra Finkelstein, suspected that the pro-gun association was searching for information to discredit their work.

Smith and Finkelstein spent hours pulling together the records and ultimately, backed by the university, contested the request in court. They are not alone in their experience. Over the past decade, scholars working on everything from climate liability strategy, to the use of biotechnology in animal agriculture, to the safety of abortions performed by nurse practitioners and midwives have been subjected to public records requests made by groups critical of their work. And the number of such requests seems to be rising. According to reporting from The New York Times, the University of California system alone saw the total number of public records requests increase from 3,266 in 2009 to 16,921 in 2017. (Read more here…)