By Andrew Duffy, The Ottawa CitizenJune 10, 2012
In a ruling made public Friday, Commissioner Ann Cavoukian upheld the university’s decision to withhold the research-related expense records of professor Amir Attaran.
The records had been requested by an unnamed individual, known only as John Doe.
The same individual has filed a series of requests for information related to Attaran, a high-profile critic of the Conservative government’s Afghan detainee policy. Attaran has relied on the federal access to information law to gain access to documents that describe Canada’s treatment of detainees.
Cavoukian’s order — she was ruling on an appeal launched by John Doe — offers a staunch defence of academic freedom.
The principle, she said, ensures that universities can engage in research without interference by a disapproving government or public.
“Academic freedom is a critical underpinning of our institutions of higher learning,” Cavoukian wrote. “It is a value that I’m delighted to be able to uphold.”
Cavoukian said she did not have to review Attaran’s expense reports themselves — they were sent to her in a sealed envelope — in order to make her ruling. She relied instead on a description of the documents.
The commissioner, however, maintained that she had the jurisdiction to consider the appeal and examine the records if she felt it necessary.
The ruling ends a dispute that had caused friction between Attaran and university administrators about how best to defend against what the law professor considered to be politically motivated requests for information about him.
He wanted administrators to challenge the commissioner’s jurisdiction to consider the appeal.
In an interview Friday, Attaran said he was satisfied with the outcome even if the legal question of Cavoukian’s jurisdiction remains untested.
“This is an important step,” he said. “In terms of finding that the documents are lawfully shielded from disclosure, that’s exactly what I wanted and that’s exactly correct.”
In its submission, the university said its researchers are protected by a “broad exclusion” from the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Narrowing that exclusion would impede their work, the university argued, since it could expose research to publicity before it’s complete.
U of O has received 20 freedom of information requests related to Attaran’s research and school affairs, all from the same person.
A handful of requests seek Attaran’s correspondence regarding earlier freedom of information requests.
Attaran said some of his email correspondence with U of O president Allan Rock is being released in accordance with the law.