Who watches the watchers? My experience with the Freedom of Information Act

Almost two years ago I began submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on public professors that work with anti-GMO groups, the organic industry, or both. Until one such request was filed on Professor Kevin Folta due to his outspoken criticism of the anti-GMO movement, I had never heard of FOIA.

I quickly read horror stories about such requests being filed on professors who were researching evolution, climate change, and tobacco advertising to children. Emails were cherry picked in order to paint these professors in a bad light in the press. Such requests were being filed by industry and their astro-turf groups unhappy with the work being done by these professors. Just like the FOIA requests submitted on Professor Folta.

I began submitting my own for two reasons. First I wanted to expose the hypocrisy of specific professors. Charles Benbrook, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, and Hector Valenzuela have all publicly attacked Kevin Folta. So I thought it was only fair to see if they had any ties to industry of their own. But I also wanted this to be done by an individual. If a company or a pro-science NGO had submitted these requests, they would have been quickly called out in the press. But a middle school teacher with no ties to industry? What could they say about me? I am about as independent as one can get.

The request on Taleb went nowhere, he had been gone from the public university for too long. He is safe at private NYU where he can scream about transparency while not having to submit to it himself. People should take his own advice, without skin in the game can he be trusted?

Benbrook and Valenzuela were different stories. With the New York Times having already submitted a FOIA request on Benbrook, I wasn’t expecting much. It turns out that he was selling science for $100,000:

EXPOSURE of a private email trail has revealed one of WA organic farmer Steve Marsh’s biggest backers sought to fund “scientific” research to present in a “strategic court room” as evidence of genetically modified (GM) crops being unsafe, to help demand a moratorium.
Mr Kailis asked what the costs and outcomes would be of choosing the “ramrod path” of four to eight months.
Dr Benbrook’s reply said, “Off the top of my head, if I am the ramrod, I would need full control of process and right to be a slave driver/dictator, and at least $100k, and probably will regret promising to do it for that amount”.

Valenzuela did not appear to have any such industry ties (so far), but he curiously worked hard to hide part of his emails:

Considering the volume of information contained in the box of documents, it’s totally possible that a few pages just happened to be copied in super tiny print somehow. Be it accident or clever way to foil far-sighted FOIA requesters, the MuckRock user who requested the emails, Stephan Neidenbach, has asked the University of Hawaii to re-release the illegible pages.

Upon receiving legible copies of the pages, it turned out that Valenzuela appeared to be attempting to hide misuse of university resources to harass Professor Folta:

While free speech unfortunately often protects cyberbullying, that does not necessarily extend to public university professors using university resources. This 32 page dossier created by Valenzuela was sent to his work email from his Evernote account.

All of these revelations must have begun to upset the anti-GMO groups, as they began to attack me for using FOIA requests that they defend for their own purposes.

This of course only got me more interested. What else was going on? Why now were these preachers of transparency so worried?

More emails would reveal divisions within the anti-GMO movement and Consumers Union (while claiming unbiased independence) collaboration with extremist groups.

Some on our side were not happy with me. Professor Folta himself disagrees with me, as does David Sutherland (one of the major players behind March Against Myths). Professor Bradshaw most recently called out my FOIA requests on professors who signed a letter attacking the new pro-science film Food Evolution. Those professors have not even seen the film and are calling it corporate paid propaganda.

There is of course zero evidence that biotech companies had anything to do with the film. The funder, IFT, actually benefits when companies go non-GMO. Food scientists are called in to reformulate the ingredients.

But being a public middle school teacher, I have realized something. We are in the public light. The very first day I was hired, before I even knew what a GMO was, I was told to be wary of every word I put into an email. My emails were public record, no different than my curriculum or lesson plans.

One thing was still bothering me though. As an individual I cannot really afford to pay for many of those emails. Some universities have asked for upwards of $1,000. I started crowdfunding for some, but began to feel guilty about it. Shouldn’t my followers donate money to vaccine charities instead?

So who watches the watchers? FOIA is supposed to be about citizens having access to public documents, but only industry and special interest groups can really afford it in many cases. I reached out to journalist Michael Morisy who started Muckrock, which allows individuals like myself to file requests. They even handle all of the follow ups for users. I asked him if FOIA is really effective if it can only be used by biased organizations and journalists at very large news organizations.

He agreed that this is a major concern, especially when countries like the United Kingdom rarely assess such fees. But he believes that “if FOIA were to go away, people who would seek to intimidate or harass simply find some new avenue to do so, while the public would lose a critical tool for democratic participation.”

And on that he is 100% correct. All these groups need are insinuations and doubt. So I truly believe that someone like me is needed to step up and use the same process. Are those professors attacking Food Evolution over transparency really going to attack me for asking them to be transparent? The answer to that question alone may get at their true motives.

And it appears that this is happening. Already I have received an email from a Vice reporter asking about my motives. But I promise something to my followers few on either side are actually willing to. Transparency.

All of my requests and their responses are on Muckrock.com, except for a few individual cases where the university insisted on using their own electronic system. I freely admit that my first FOIA requests were a fishing expedition. I never should have requested “all” emails to or from Benbrook. I have learned from those early mistakes and now submit more specific requests.

Before all of this I once used to say about “Big Brother” that I would be fine with cameras in my bedroom, as long as we could have public cameras installed in the President’s bedroom as well. Let us make sure that FOIA requests are not one sided and cherry picked. Join me. Sign up at Muckrock.com and submit one today.

The anti-science movement is going to continue no matter how much “communication” we ask of them. When everyone’s dirty laundry is exposed, it just won’t be a big deal anymore.

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