Steinbuch: Why I sued my law school

I have written here numerous times about differing admissions standards in my law school and elsewhere for minorities and how those policies often harm the individuals they're designed to help. Recently, I sought from my school an identity-redacted spreadsheet containing LSAT scores, college and law-school grade-point averages, race, gender and age for students who graduated from the law school and took the bar exam. My school has twice before given me the same records for prior periods. 

The first time the school gave me the records was after the Arkansas Attorney General issued an opinion confirming my right to receive the public records I sought. The second time I received the records was when the same Dean who now refused the request gave over the records for a previous time-frame.  

The third time was not a charm, however. Notwithstanding that I, as the coauthor of the latest edition of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act book, explained to the Dean that FOIA requires him to give me the updated version of records that I previously received, the Dean refused. 

The Dean contended that because I've served on the admissions committee previously, he was free to refuse my FOIA request: “It is therefore reasonably likely that, if we were to provide the redacted information, you would be able to infer identity and therefore the data is data that could reasonably be expected to lead to personally identifiable information.” 

He's wrong.

The law doesn't look to individual's alleged specialized knowledge to determine whether public records are disclosable. Otherwise, the Dean could refuse my FOIA request but would be required to produce the same records to another requestor. That couldn't be the law. And, in fact, it clearly isn't.  

Moreover, the notion that I could have memorized the LSAT scores and grades of applicants from when I served on the admissions committee that would allow me to pick out specific students from the data is, well, downright silly. So, even if, arguendo, this were the law, the claim would fail. 

So, I hired an expert FOIA lawyer, and he filed suit. That's what law provides for. That's what government actors withholding public records should expect. The case represents the challenges of bureaucratic obfuscation. 

Maybe what happened next should have been expected too. Two days after my attorney filed his complaint and on the day that the local newspaper published a story on the lawsuit, I learned from a student that the associate dean at the law school contacted a student in my class to question whether I discussed my research on law-school admissions in class. Unfortunately, this type of retaliation is not uncommon, but it's particularly problematic in academia, where professors are entitled to academic freedom. I wish I could say that this is the first time academic freedom was under attack at my school, but I can't.  

I'm very concerned about how we treat all of our students, and I'm very sensitive to the conditions faced by members of cohorts that have suffered discrimination. I have no doubt that I'm influenced by, inter alai, the events that have shaped my perspective: My father lived under Nazi occupation and Soviet rule (in Siberia, in part) during World War II and then lived in a displaced-person's camp in occupied Germany after the War; Much of both of my parents' family were murdered by the Nazis; I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood where anti-Jewish slurs were not uncommon; A swastika was painted on my family's driveway by a "fellow" student in my high school; And, my sister had pennies thrown at her as an anti-Semitic act. So, I'm highly sympathetic. But I'm also aware that feel-good politics can result in perverse outcomes. And the data support the view that we're harming the very individuals who we're trying to help. 

So, I will continue to pursue the truth in the face of the obstacles I face. That's what academia is supposed to be about, and I won't be cowed by the efforts of those seeking to block my access to the facts.

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