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Apr 05

No. 2: Legal Corner: Safely Answering an FOIA Request

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Legal Corner:

Safely Answering an FOIA Request

Reader Question: My laboratory received a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information on our laboratory animal work. The query seemed overly invasive, leading me to believe it came from an animal-rights agitator fishing for details about our facility and staff. Must I respond personally, or should I refer this to someone else in my university, like the chief veterinarian or public-affairs officer?

Expert Comments:

Animal-rights activists commonly file both federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and state open-records requests seeking to obtain information about research. In some cases these requests are sent to individual researchers. It is not recommended that individual researchers respond personally. Instead, the requests should be forwarded to the appropriate person within the researcher’s institution.

Each institution should develop a protocol and identify a point person who will be responsible for state open-records and federal FOIA requests to ensure an orderly response. Depending on the institution’s administrative structure, the point person may be someone within the office of the university counsel, the vice president or vice chancellor for research or the signing official within the grants office.

All researchers using animals should be aware of the point person and the appropriate institutional procedure for responding to a federal FOIA or state open-records request. Regardless of the point person’s official title, that individual should have a full understanding of both the federal FOIA and state open-records laws, recognize the differences between each, and carefully consider which records are not subject to disclosure or may be redacted. He or she also should also communicate with researchers so that all parties involved are aware of deadlines for responding.

The National Association for Biomedical Research’s (NABR) best-practices guide, Responding to FOIA Requests: Facts and Resources, offers guidance on the types of information commonly requested by animal-rights activists, tips for compliance without putting researchers at risk of harassment, and suggestions to assist researchers and university administrators or advisors when responding to requests. The guide is available at: http://www.nabr.org/Portals/8/Responding_to_FOIA_Requests.pdf

Comments by Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that speaks for the scientific community on legislation and regulations affecting laboratory-animal research.

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Comments (7)
written by Dr J, April 01, 2010
Never respond to formal outside inquiries yourself. Always refer them to your public affairs officer or legal council. This is especially something that comes by way of an FOIA. In that case, you should also forward the request to your funding agency and place a call to the Technical Monitor for your grant or contract letting them know about the FOIA request.
written by Curmudgeon, April 01, 2010
Maybe all this secrecy and bureaucratic handling of inquiries is the CAUSE of the dark suspicions about lab animal cruelty taking place. What if you tried a different tack?. Write the inquirer a pen-and-ink, personally handwritten note, giving them whatever info you can (I assume you aren't really being cruel).You have nothing to hide! In fact, give the person your lab phone number, and invite him/her to call you up to chat about any lingering concerns they have. Mightn't this defuse the whole thing, and convert an enemy to a friend?
written by Cautious, April 02, 2010
Boy! Are you naive! Don't dare meet your questioner in person unless you are wearing a bulletproof vest. One never knows...
written by Reg Girl, April 08, 2010
Question: If the FOIA request is made to the USDA at the Federal level, do your state open-records laws then not apply, and all records subject to disclosure, although perhaps redacted?
written by Learned The Hard Way, April 08, 2010
Curmudgeon, have you been in Antartica for the past 20 years? The animal rights movement, when not violently attacking researchers and laboratories, is working fervently to stop ALL animal research. The research program where I worked for several decades actually made the mistake of taking the approach you advocate. The result was the initiation of an aggressive campaign to stop animal research here. The animal rights advocate we invited to visit and talk, gathered enough information to start a campaign of distorted statements and negative publicity, which resulted in achieving this person's goal. The research, which was important, and conducting in a perfectly humane and ethical fashion, was stopped. Don't make the same mistake we did! Never assume that animal rights activists can be convinced that animal research is important. Science has already lost that battle with these individuals. What the scientific community needs to be doing is to reach the same children that the animal rights people are reaching, and show them how important biomedical research is.
written by mousedoc, April 08, 2010
Curmudgeon, one should absolutely not respond themselves, at least not until after their legal counsel has reviewed the request AND the response. There are legal requirements for length of time in which you must respond and the type of information you must provide. What varies by state. If someone is asking for information via a FOIA request they are already beyond the friend stage.
written by Research12, April 08, 2010
Researchers who receive public funds can and must respond to FOIA requests, and should do so fully and honestly. It is absurd to suggest that researchers should seek to hide from organizations working for the welfare or rights of animals. Instead, resarchers should openly communicate what they are doing to work toward nonanimal methods. That is both the letter and the spirit of the law.

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