N.Y. lawmaker seeks to shield college texts from public view

By The Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. — A bill with a powerful sponsor in New York’s Legislature would seek to bolster the academic freedom of professors by denying public access to books, films and other resources being used in classrooms.

The latest of recent proposals to limit records from public disclosure would exempt college classroom teaching materials from the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

“The college classroom has always been an open forum,” according to the written justification for the bill, sponsored by Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairman Ronald Canestrari. “The inclusion of college classroom teaching aids and materials under (the state Freedom of Information Law) only creates an unnecessary concern which may limit an instructor’s ability to pass on knowledge and ideas to students.”

State University of New York Trustee Candace de Russy, a former professor who has written and lectured extensively on education and culture, called the bill “ludicrous.”

“The public clearly has a right to know what their tax dollars are used for in the area of education,” she said. “Academic freedom is not a license to operate in secret.”

Canestrari said late last week that he is open to discussion of any unintended results of the bill, which he described as in its early stages. But he said on-campus safeguards — from department heads to presidents and boards of trustees — would prevent abuse under the law. He said academic freedom is key to the mission of higher education.

“It’s a basic tenet of life in the university and something that must be protected,” said Lisa Feldman Reich, spokeswoman for the United University Professions union that represents SUNY professors. “UUP has always defended academic freedom and will continue to vigorously defend academic freedom.”

The proposal, which has surfaced in different forms in previous years, has roots in a decision by the state Court of Appeals. In 1993, the state’s highest court overruled a lower appeals court that had denied a citizen the right to the film “Sexual Intercourse,” which was then being shown in a Family Life and Human Sexuality course at Nassau County Community College.

The high court ruled that classroom materials are public records. It quoted former Gov. Malcolm Wilson when the Freedom of Information Law was created in the mid-1970s: “I have long held that government is the people’s business and that the people have a right to know the processes by which government decisions are made.”

The Assembly bill comes after that chamber fought back efforts by Gov. George Pataki and the Republican-led Senate in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to limit other government records from public disclosure.

The National Conference of State Legislatures hasn’t seen efforts to shield records from public “sunshine” laws extended to college classrooms in other states, a spokesman said.

“The education of students in New York is a critical function,” said Robert Freeman, head of the state’s Committee on Open Government. “Certainly the public should be able to see the resources used in the classroom ... Essentially, it’s an effort to censor to preserve academic freedom. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”