NABR Presents Inaugural Ranking of State Open Records Laws

NABR is pleased to announce its inaugural ranking of state open records laws. This publication summarizes and analyzes the open records laws of every state and the District of Columbia as they relate to biomedical research records. Using several key criteria, each state’s law is assigned a score of up to five stars to highlight those states with open records laws most protective of biomedical research records, as well as the states with the most room for improvement.

All those involved with the care and use of animals in biomedical research should care about their state’s open records law. Animal rights activists have increasingly turned to both the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state open records laws to acquire information about biomedical research and the personal information of researchers working with animals. Such information has been used to request baseless investigations, seek criminal charges for alleged animal cruelty and ask for enforcement actions to be taken for alleged issues involving noncompliance. It has also been used to inaccurately label researchers as “animal abusers” and target individuals and families at their homes. It is often posted online to encourage harassment. While many states’ laws include exemptions intended to protect proprietary information, these exemptions have often proven insufficient to protect animal care and use program and research data, photographs and the personal information of faculty and staff.

Researchers as well as administrators at both public universities and private companies should be aware of the state open records laws in each jurisdiction, as any communications, data, photographs or other information sent to or obtained by an employee of a public university is potentially subject to disclosure. This understanding is critical in the case of public-private partnerships or joint research ventures where some information is collected by or transmitted to a researcher at a public university.

In addition to analyzing whether institutional records and personal information are exempt from disclosure, these rankings also consider what costs a research institution may recover if it is required to spend valuable staff time researching and disclosing information. Many broad and vaguely worded open records requests, such as “all information related to research with nonhuman primates,” result in significant response costs associated with compiling the records,  legal review by  the institution’s legal counsel  of each page to determine what information is protected from disclosure, as well as copying and mailing expenses. An open records law that fails to permit an institution to recoup the full costs associated with responding, for example by only permitting photocopying costs to be charged, may encourage more broadly worded requests in the future.

In recent years, a number of states have recognized the crucial importance of protecting both research records and the personal information of researchers by amending their state’s open records laws to exempt this sensitive information from disclosure. The need for these changes has often been highlighted by examples of sensitive information being disclosed to and misused by animal rights activists and extremists. Proactive changes to the state’s open records law may have prevented many of these unfortunate circumstances from occurring.

The primary purpose of these rankings is two-fold: (1) to make those involved with the care and use of animals in biomedical research aware of the open records laws in their state and assist in evaluating each law’s effectiveness in protecting research documents; and (2) to encourage research institutions in states with room for improvement to proactively seek exemptions in their open records laws before information is released that may lead to targeting by animal rights organizations.

NABR also encourages researchers and administrators to download our Best Practices Guide, Responding to FOIA Requests: Facts and Resources, at NABR.org. This document includes information about the federal FOIA as well as several best practices and resources applicable to state open records requests.

To view NABR’s rankings of state FOIA laws, please click here.