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McGill asks for permission to ignore access-to-information requests

McGill University is asking permission to ignore access-to-information requests it deems a waste of time.

Claiming it's being bombarded with frivolous queries, McGill has asked Quebec's Commission d'accès à l'information for authorization to disregard certain requests from any McGill student, anyone working for student papers at McGill or Concordia University or anyone who "could reasonably be linked" to the students whose requests the university finds problematic.

The motion, submitted last month, would let McGill reject requests it deems too broad, frivolous, trivial, similar to other requests, "intended to fail" or associated with a series of documents published on a website dedicated to McGill-related documents.

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The university argues this is necessary because dealing with a slew of access-to-information requests is taking too much time and sapping school resources.

The requests "are abusive because of their systemic character," reads the motion submitted to the access-to-information commissioner. It adds the university has "serious grounds and reasons to believe that the same system will be used in the near future by the respondents and others in order to achieve the same illegitimate purposes."

But the students singled out in this submission argue that McGill's trying to duck its disclosure obligations.

"There's no secret plot to undermine the university through access-to-information requests," said economics student Christopher Bangs, who is included in not only this latest motion but in a previous request, filed last February, by the university to ignore a series of freedom-of-information requests he has filed. This is "an unprecedented request," he added.

As public institutions, universities are subject to provincial access-to-information laws.

McGill claims a small group of students is behind a spike in requests last year – 170 compared to 37 the year before.

"The motion relates only to requests that are abusive in their wide-ranging scope and where responding to them would severely disrupt normal university activities," spokeswoman Julie Fortier said in an e-mail. She added that the school had "on more than one occasion" asked students to narrow the scope of their queries, but "the additional details they provided did not lead to more reasonable requests."

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The requests included in McGill's December submission touch on everything from connections to fossil-fuel companies to military research to university administrators' catering receipts.

The university claims the requests are too similar, and were submitted too closely together, not to be linked.

McGill is unlikely to get what its motion proposes, but will probably succeed in stalling requests, says Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer who has long experience battling the federal government over access to information requests.

"It's a time-buyer," he said. "The person concerned will seek remedy and the remedial process buys time for the university."

But he added that the university has a point. "I understand what the students want, but they are going about it the wrong way," Mr. Kurland said. "McGill has difficulty processing the requests as worded, which is frustrating for the university."

Bodies governed by federal or provincial access-to-information laws are allowed to try and designate problem requesters as "frivolous and vexatious," which lets them disregard their requests. But that's on a case-by-case basis, and the bar is pretty high. "It should be clear and apparent to the reasonable person on the street" that an individual's flooding the system with repetitive, doomed, irrational requests, Mr. Kurland explained.

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"The thought that McGill is the judge, jury and executioner on freedom of information requests is wrong," Mr. Kurland said. But "I see right on both sides. … What we have here is a problem of communication."

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