In a case that could affect how the United States and Canada approach free speech, a federal judge in Wisconsin is weighing whether a federal law that allows students to request access to books by professors, and universities to publish them, is constitutional.
The judge, Paul Watanabe, will hear oral arguments in the case of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which has been under scrutiny since a student group filed a lawsuit in 2015, challenging the constitutionality of the act, which requires schools to provide students with copies of materials, including textbooks.
The Wisconsin suit alleges that Wisconsin’s FOIA Act violates the First Amendment by requiring the school to provide copies of material “for the purpose of determining the eligibility of students for access to, or participation in, academic programs, services, or other educational activities, or for the purpose or convenience of their parents.”
A federal district court judge, John G. Roberts Jr., dismissed the lawsuit last month, saying it was moot and did not meet the threshold for a constitutional challenge.
But Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, has filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, arguing that Wisconsin has not met the standard set by the Supreme Court for a First Amendment challenge.
Wisconsin students are allowed to request copies of their professors’ or university’s materials, but only if they provide a request form and provide copies to a teacher or professor.
Schimel’s filing cites an example of a request from a student who asked for copies of his professors’ books.
He noted that the form was filled out by the professor, and said students were entitled to copies of the books.
The request form did not state whether the request was for a student or a professor.
A judge could rule on the question of whether Wisconsin’s act is constitutional in the coming weeks.
Schimels lawyers are seeking to have the law invalidated, arguing it’s not a reasonable way to ensure that the students’ requests are being honored.
Schimsel said he was happy to see the case reach the Seventh Circuits, because it will ensure the public gets to know how federal law affects the First and Second Amendments.
Schimer, a conservative who represented the school district in the lawsuit, said his goal is to make sure Wisconsin students have access to information about how their professors, universities and the federal government use information.
The government argues that the law is unconstitutional because it violates students’ privacy rights.
Schimpels lawyers said students are entitled to a copy of any academic materials they request, and that the request for a copy is not required to include information about the content of the materials or how students may access them.
Schimmels lawyers also argued that the government should have been more specific about what information was being provided, including whether it included information about student safety, access to the materials, and access to any data related to student enrollment.
Schmittels lawyers noted that Wisconsin students may not be able to ask for copies because the Wisconsin law does not provide for students to obtain copies of books that are no longer in print.
The law provides for students who are unable to obtain a copy from a professor, but students who cannot find a copy for free are not entitled to access to it.
Schimpels argued that students should have access if they could access the materials and that they should be entitled to an educational institution to provide them.
“This is a textbook,” he said.
“They should have the same access to this information as anyone else.”