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McGill continues quest to limit information access

University alleges it is “victim of systematic demands”

As McGill’s legal fight against a number of access to information requests (ATIs) makes its way through Quebec’s justice system, two disputing parties met in front of the Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec on Thursday.

The hearing centred around whether the Commission has standing to decide McGill’s request for the authority to deny future ATI requests from anyone on a list of specified categories of individuals or submitting requests on specified topics.

The right to access administrative documents, according to the Commission’s website, covers over 2,800 Quebec public bodies. ATIs are typically used by students, journalists, activists, and other interested parties to legally obtain information from public bodies  such as McGill. If a public body refuses to grant ATI requests, the Commission acts as an administrative tribunal to mediate negotiations and make decisions.

At the hearing, the University’s two lawyers advocated for one of two responses from the Commission: either that the Commission grant the University the right to disregard future ATIs from select categories of persons, or the requirement that those within the categories receive authorization from the Commission before submitting ATIs to the University.

The select categories of persons that the University seeks to prevent from submitting ATI requests includes blanket terms such as “persons associated to McGilliLeaked” or “persons that could reasonably be linked to such requestor,” and that show characteristics such as being “overly broad,” “frivolous,” “target[ing] trivial documents and information,” or “associated to one or more categories of documents and information published on McGilliLeaked.”

Prior to this summer, the University also sought to include the term “students of McGill,” but later dropped that part of the language when the Daily Publications Society asked to be made a respondent on the case, on the grounds that the motion would directly affect student journalists.

At the hearing, which was held in French, the respondents’ lawyer labelled McGill’s request to deny future ATI requests at its discretion as having a “discriminatory character,” and claimed that the University is asking to change the law in order to suit its demands.

Essentially, the respondents’ lawyer argued, McGill would be asking the Commission to delegate its power, giving the University the power to decide on and dismiss ATI requests, typically the responsibility of the Commission – and a move that would be unprecedented if decided in McGill’s favour.

“This type of demand has no precedent in the law,” she said in French at the hearing.

In response, the University’s lawyers argued that a large number of ATI requests from students and others created a complex set of “systematic demands,” a phenomenon that they claimed reduced efficiency and cost money to fulfill.

McGill’s lawyers argued that the University, as a public organization, has the right “not to be the victim of systematic demands.”

Quebec law allows for public organizations to disregard ATIs – if the ATIs in question are deemed to be “improper” in nature, due to a repetitious or systematic character.

Respondents argue that the “systematic and abusive” nature of the requests has been “manufactured by artificially grouping together a number of students and non-students who have made ATI requests on vastly different subjects,” Kevin Paul, one of the respondents present at the hearing, told The Daily.

Another of the respondents present at the hearing, Isaac Stethem, expressed similar sentiments. “I just find it really frustrating and disingenuous,” he said. “[It’s] frankly disturbing and saddening that the University is using this kind of language and allegations and tactics.”

The University defended its decision, and disputed the notion that it is seeking to circumvent existing access to information laws. According to Secretary-General Stephen Strople, who is responsible for responding to ATI requests at the University, “The University is seeking authorization from the Commission to disregard applications for access to documents that are improper because they were too broad, repetitive, systematic, frivolous, and asking for information that is obviously personal and therefore cannot be disclosed – all of which is not permitted by the law,” he wrote in an email to The Daily.

“The law provides a recourse to seek authorization to disregard such requests. This is the recourse we used and that is now in front of the Commission,” he said. “[The law] also gives rights to those from whom the documents are requested.”

Speaking to the University’s amendment regarding pre-Commission approval of ATIs, Strople added, “If the Commission does not want to grant us permission to ignore future requests of the type we describe, then it could require that such requests for access first be submitted to the Commission for review before the University has to deal with them.”

Ultimately, Stethem said, the University’s request to disregard future ATIs comes down to power. “It’s fairly clear where the balance of power lies here,” he said, pointing to the University, which has more legal, financial, and labour resources than students typically do. “The commission is there to mitigate that imbalance, but the University is seeking to exempt itself from that oversight.”

The requests named in the current motion date back to November 2011, after the campus strike of non-academic workers.

The requests named in the current motion largely revolve around several categories: fossil fuel investments, alleged military research at the university, and administrative finances. In the motion submitted by the University, the requests are grouped together in “waves” – despite the respondents’ denial that any collaboration was made.

“They’re lumping all of these information requests together in order to make the point that there are too many requests being made, that there’s some coordinated effort,” Mona Luxion, a former Daily columnist, and one of the respondents, told The Daily in January.

However, respondents deny that there was any collaboration between groups on the requests, as alleged by the University.

The Commission is expected to decide over the next few weeks on which elements of McGill’s motion – most significantly, its request to deny future requests at its discretion – are within its purview. Following this, if the case is not resolved in mediation, it will go to trial later this year, with dates tentatively set for October and December.