McGill takes on student journalists

Graphic by Jennifer Kwan

McGill University has filed a motion that would grant it the ability to deny access to information requests from The McGill Daily, The Link, the website McGillliLeaked and anyone associated with them. This comes in response to what the university describes as a “complex system of repetitious and abusive requests” for information.

According to the Canadian Access to Information Act, publically-funded, government-run institutions like universities are required to release certain documents to the public when officially requested.

The McGill Daily reported on Jan. 19 that the university filed the motion to the Commission d’accès à l’information, the provincial body which oversees access to information requests, claiming that the ATI requests were set up “as a retaliation measure against McGill in the aftermath of the 2011-2012 student protests.”

The motion, which names 14 respondents, seeks the authority to disregard current requests as well as any future requests made by the respondents or any person who can be linked to them, essentially barring the individuals named from ever submitting ATI requests to McGill.

It also seeks the right to deny future requests on a variety of subjects, such as military research and mining investments. Future requests could also be denied if they were found to be “overly broad,” “frivolous” or if they target “trivial documents and information.”

McGill’s motion claims that the respondents set up a “complex system” via repeated ATI requests, which the university describes as repetitious and abusive. It also argues that responding to the requests would represent “serious impediments to [the University’s] activities.”

McGill student Christopher Bangs, the founder of the website McGilliLeaked and one of the respondents involved in the case, told The Concordian that he was not only worried about the motion itself, but also the motivations behind it.

“We’ve had a lot of complaints, not just from McGill students but from a lot of members of the McGill community, about how ATI requests are handled,” he said. “We’ve all had trouble with it, but the fact that they’re going to take this extreme step at this point makes us wonder about their commitment to ensuring both an open dialogue and access to information.”

Bangs also contested the suggestion that the fourteen respondents were operating in collaboration while filing their requests.

“There were fourteen of us in this motion, and the fourteen of us did not co-ordinate our motions,” Bangs said. “We did not submit them together, we did not have some sort of secret plan to bring down the university through access to information requests, so the fact that they were all submitted at the same time does not give McGill university the right to deny not only those requests but also all future requests we might make.”

Julie Fortier, associate director for McGill’s media relations office, explained that the motion is based on current law which allows ATI recipients the right to not answer a request if it breaks certain rules, and that the ATIs in question fall into these categories.

“There are provisions within the law on access to information that allow an organization to make the request to the commission to not reply to certain requests when these are abusive by their nature,” said Fortier. “When they’re systematic or repetitive, or when they could seriously disrupt normal activities, and we thought that this was the case.”

Fortier also said that prior to this motion the ATIs in question were not rejected, and that future requests would be denied if they were considered to be of the same nature as those in the motion.

The Concordian contacted Chris Mota for comment on the nature, depth and number of ATI requests that Concordia receives, but Mota explained that the school could not comment on the matter.

Corrected 01/22/13

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