Commissioner sides with University of Ottawa professor in privacy battle

By Andrew Duffy, The Ottawa  CitizenJune 10, 2012
OTTAWA — Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner has ruled that the  expense reports of a University of Ottawa law professor are protected by the  critically important concept of academic freedom.

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.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa  Citizen

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