In an attempt to avoid the “legal burden” of Freedom of Information legislation, the University of Canberra has pressured four journalism students into withdrawing FOI applications targeting controversial stories involving UC administration.

But despite legal threats and warnings of disciplinary action levelled by the faculty of arts and design, a fifth student refused to withdraw her FOI — submitted to try to extract the truth behind planned cuts to UC’s bachelor of journalism. I am that student.

My classmates and I submitted the FOIs under ACT legislation as part of a final-year investigative journalism assignment — ironically, one of the units UC is axing. But the stonewalling that greeted student requests for information finally gave way late last Thursday, minutes after UC delivered me over 400 pages of documentation in response to my FOI request — an act of investigative journalism that they tried to force me to abandon, with threats that grew as the deadline neared.

A week before the university was legally required to release the documents to students who’d submitted FOI requests, we received an email from our lecturer, Crispin Hull, asking us, on behalf of UC to withdraw our FOI applications.

“The FOI office feels swamped and will have to spend a lot of time and enormous cost with your FOI requests … [the FOI officer] would like to be relieved of the legal burden of having to fulfil the FOI requests according to the FOI Act,” Hull wrote.

He requested we formally drop our FOI requests in exchange for a guest lecture from David Hamilton, the university’s FOI officer: “It would be good if you could officially withdraw your FOI requests as soon as possible and in return we will get [David’s] FOI insights and you will get the opportunity to ask him questions about the FOI process. I think this will go further towards achieving our educational aims than doggedly persisting with the formal FOI process.”

Every student, except me, withdrew their request at the urging of their lecturer. I told the lecturer the request went against “everything I’ve been taught about journalism”.

Shortly after I sent this email, the deputy dean of arts and design, professor Greg Battye, instructed Hull to pass on a message to me as the one remaining student refusing to withdraw their FOI request. Battye cited UC legal advice and said to let me know that if I continued with the FOI it could result in a breach of the student conduct rules. Such breaches can lead to expulsion or exclusion from university, or being failed in the subject involved. Battye claimed he had a legal opinion that the assessment required UC academic ethics clearance, which had not been sought.

However, ethics clearance has never previously been required for journalism students to write an assessable story — not even one about the University of Canberra. I believe this was just another attempt to frighten me off investigating a potentially negative story on UC by accessing documents through FOI.

Dr Johan Lidberg, an FOI researcher and Monash University journalism academic, says that even asking someone to withdraw an FOI request is out of order.

“It’s completely inappropriate and against the spirit of FOI laws to pressure or even ask applicants to drop requests,” Dr Lidberg said. “FOI is a democratic accountability tool … to pressure someone to withdraw an information request could be seen as undemocratic and would probably not be viewed favourably should the case progress to an appeal.”

Ella Fisher, president of the UC Press Club, also expressed disappointment: “We are taught to follow up on [FOI] requests and be persistent when faced with reluctance to complete them. We feel this reaction to the FOI requests sent to the university goes against what we are being taught in our degree.”

My next assignment will be to analyse the documents on the planned cuts to the journalism degree reluctantly released to me under FOI. The secrecy surrounding this “restructure” (which will reportedly involve the abolition of the bachelor of journalism qualification and the elimination of nearly half of the journalism practice units) motivated my FOI application. There’s been a serious lack of genuine student consultation and a remarkable amount of spin-doctoring from UC.

But one of the four FOI requests withdrawn under pressure from UC management involved a more controversial issue — the awarding of naming-rights sponsorship of the ACT Brumbies rugby team to the university. Details of the deal — including the cost to UC — are still being withheld from the public.

Questions were put to the university and the FOI office today. Battye declined to comment, saying he was unable to meet Crikey‘s deadline, and the FOI office did not respond by deadline.