A bill to amend the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), which protects the research materials of professors at state institutions of higher learning, was held for further study by the Rhode Island state Senate this past Tuesday.

The bill, which would amend previous APRA law to exempt both the physical and electronic research materials such as notes, recordings, and correspondence, was sponsored by State Representative Carol Hagan Mcentee. The idea for the reform was proposed to Mcentee by Assistant Professor Aaron Ley, of the University of Rhode Island’s political science department.

“The reason I first realized I wanted to do research on this is because URI’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) had a newsletter that they sent out,” Ley said. “It spoke about how the Union had sent an amicus curiae brief to courts in Arizona in support of two professors in Arizona who had been targets of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.”

The bill, in its current form, was first brought before the House of Representatives on January 12 of this year. After passing through a committee, which recommended passage, the bill was passed by the House on January 31 before being referred to the senate.

Tim Faulker, a staff writer for ecoRI News, reported that the case in Arizona was about a climate researcher who spent 10 weeks to review 100,000 emails in order to comply with a FOIA request.  

After beginning his research, Ley said that he attended a climate denial conference here at URI last year at which Mcentee was a moderator at one of the panels. Knowing that she was a state representative, Ley shared his concerns about our own state’s APRA laws with her.

“The APRA law is a little ambiguous,” Ley said. “It does grant protection for working papers and things like that, but it doesn’t really say anything about audio files or anything like that, or scholarly correspondence or anything.”

After discussing his concerns with Mcentee, Ley said that she proposed a piece of “wide sweeping” legislation last year that would have protected virtually all scholarly work. The previous legislation caused concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), forcing Ley and Mcentee to work with the ACLU in order to rewrite the language and alleviate concerns, Ley said.

“So our idea behind this is that we want to protect academic freedom and we want to protect the integrity of the research process,” Ley said. “We want to make sure that scholars, if they’re interpreting data, that their interpretation will stay insulated from political pressure and things like that. The worst case scenario is that maybe a group, or a business, corporation, or an interest group might learn that data is being interpreted and they might want to do an information request to see that data so they can put pressure on a professor or researcher.”