As national Sunshine Week comes to a close, some legislators are trying to close out the sunshine. A new proposal would expand a current exemption to Arizona’s Public Records Laws and limit public information at universities.
Private research groups, with support from the universities, are spearheading the effort to keep more of their research private. Current law already protects some intellectual property and trade secrets from being released to the public so that competitors cannot copy university research before it is copyrighted. But the groups are trying to expand the protections to protect information in all university contracts that merely contain a statement of confidentiality.
This means that a contract between the university and any employee, consultant, or any other private group or individual can be kept out of public view. However, courts have already determined that a public body cannot contract out of its duty to disclose public records. Instead, the public has a right to monitor the government’s activities, including university contracts and research. That right is guaranteed by Arizona’s Public Records Laws.
The new proposal further proclaims an emergency, stating that it must be passed immediately in order to preserve the public peace, health or safety. It is difficult to imagine such an urgent need to limit public access to university records, or why the normal procedure for passing new legislation isn’t perfectly adequate.
Whatever the research groups and universities are trying to accomplish, the proposed legislation stretches too broadly and attempts to rush through a significant limitation on the public’s right to access information of public importance. If the current protections should be expanded at all, they should be tailored to address specific problems that are not met by existing law and thoughtfully considered with an eye towards letting in the sunshine.
Arizona State Legislature: HB 2272 (PDF)
Arizona Daily Sun: Use Sunshine Week to Insist on Open Government Records