McGill seeks to bar students from filing Access to Information Requests

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McGill is seeking to prevent its students from filing Access to Information requests (ATIs) through a motion submitted to the Commission d’accès à l’information, the organization responsible for ensuring that public institutions comply with Quebec’s ATI laws.

The motion targets 14 individual McGill students and alumni, but also asks that the Commission allow the university to deny ATIs filed by McGill students, student journalists from The McGill Daily and Concordia’s The Link, people associated with McGilliLeaked—a website that posts documents obtained through ATIs—and “persons that could reasonably be linked to such requestors.”

McGill requests the authority to deny these requestors’ ATIs when the request is “overly broad,” similar to previous requests, or “frivolous.”

Christopher Bangs, a U3 arts student and one of the 14 respondents in the case, called the motion “paranoid” and “extreme.”

According to Bangs, this legal action could allow the university to avoid disclosing information to McGill students or student journalists for up to a year and a half, due to the severe backlog at the Commission.

“This is an attempt for [McGill] … to avoid disclosing anything they don’t want to disclose, to shut down campus media, and to really hurt the campaigns that students and allies are running to make this university a better place,” he said.

According to the motion, which was filed on Dec. 7, the university’s attempts to accommodate the growing number of ATIs have caused “serious impediments to its activities.” While McGill received 37 ATI requests in 2011, 120 were filed in 2012.

“The scope of documents and information requested by the respondents is unreasonable, each request often representing hundreds, if not thousands of pages, and spanning a time period of often more than 10 years,” the motion reads. “McGill does not have the resources to process many of the individual requests, notwithstanding the fact that they are all submitted within the same timeframe, even on the same day.”

Many of the ATIs listed in the motion deal with subjects such as military research, university documents relating to Plan Nord, and administrative expenses. McGill alleges that these similarities indicate that the 14 respondents were working together. However, several respondents pointed out that these topics were prominent in campus dialogue last semester—and are still prominent—at general assemblies and during the Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) Legislative Council meetings.

“I was legitimately doing the requests for [researching] SSMU Council motions,” SSMU Vice-President Clubs and Services Allison Cooper, who is one of the respondents, said. “If you look through which motions I have moved and argued in favour [of in Council], they are clearly correlated.”

McGill’s motion points to one of Cooper’s requests as an example of an ATI that contained the exact wording of an ATI filed by another respondent. Cooper said she sought help phrasing the ATI at the Legal Information Clinic at McGill, and suggested that similarities in wording may have arisen from other respondents taking a similar course of action.

The motion also identifies McGilliLeaked—a website created by Bangs—as a website that encourages people to submit ATI requests to McGill. McGill points to the website’s creation in October as corresponding to a “new wave” of ATI requests.
Several respondents said they were aware of the ATI system before the creation of McGilliLeaked.

“I think that McGill should recognize that there is an increased interest in universities in general, following a lot of the issues that were brought up over the strike, especially related to how they spend their money and what kind of external partnerships they have,” another one of the respondents, SSMU Vice-President External Robin Reid-Fraser, said.

Bangs said he created the website so people could share the ATIs they had received from the University. He said not all of the 14 people that McGill alleges were working together, even knew each other, although he has collaborated with several of them.

“Some of the people there are my friends and we are working on some campaigns together,” he said. “Finding out more information was a part of [these] campaigns, but obviously not all of us are connected through these campaigns.”

According to Bangs, the court case will not be able to progress for another three or four months, when a mediation session between the involved parties will take place. Several respondents expressed disappointment with the way McGill has addressed the issue.

“They could have easily invited us to meet to discuss the issue from their perspective before going to the Commission,” Reid-Fraser said. “It just seems quite unfortunate that they chose this direction, [instead of] a more constructive conversation.”