Group hopes courts will force U of S to release documents on ties to Monsanto

Faculty members and others at the University of Saskatchewan have launched a legal challenge to force the University to release information on its ties to agribusiness giant Monsanto, recently acquired by Bayer.

In fall of 2015, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix revealed that professor Peter Phillips at the U of S was one of a number of prominent academics in North America who wrote papers advocating for the global use of genetically modified crops. The paper topics were proposed by Monsanto, and the corporation edited the articles and disseminated them via a public relations firm that it had hired – though there was no public mention of the corporation’s role.

Two months later, the University held a secret symposium on how to manage media scrutiny related to the partnerships between the University and industry. 20 people were invited, including members of faculty, communications staff, and representatives from Monsanto and other companies. Monsanto’s executives oversaw the guest list and content of the symposium.

The Academic Integrity Legal Group – a group of faculty members and others concerned about corporate influence at the U of S – filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain the proceedings of the symposium. But the transcript they received was over 85 per cent blacked out.

“We’re hoping that the findings and recommendations that the Information and Privacy Commissioner wrote in his review report will be confirmed by the court.”

Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled that most of the redactions were unlawful, so the group filed a notice of appeal in the Court of Queen’s bench, and submitted their final arguments to the court on December 21, 2018.

“We’re hoping that the findings and recommendations that the Information and Privacy Commissioner wrote in his review report will be confirmed by the court, and that the University will be forced to open up a considerable portion of the document that is currently redacted,” says D’Arcy Hande, a retired archivist and member of the Academic Integrity Legal Group.

“This is what the University administration has called an ‘infringement of academic freedom,’ [suggesting] that somehow we’re inhibiting academic freedom by making university professors accountable, at a public institution, for their relationship with corporations that may – and probably do – have the motivation to steer research toward certain outcomes,” he explains.

The group has also launched a petition to “Stop the University of Saskatchewan Monsanto Cover-up,” calling on the University to lift the heavy redactions. The online version has gathered over 1,500 signatures from U of S students and staff, and Hande says there have been 100 to 200 additional signatures on the paper petition.

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