University stonewalling release of public records on federal censorship collusion: lawsuits

University of Washington gives no explanation for 5-month minimum to provide its "misinformation" center's communications with feds, Election Integrity Partnership members, watchdog says.

Updated: December 8, 2022 - 11:18pm

The University of Washington is facing several public records requests in the wake of Just the News reporting on its Center for an Informed Public's role in a Department of Homeland Security-backed private consortium intended to squelch purported election "misinformation."

Nonprofit watchdog Protect the Public's Trust filed two Washington Public Records Act lawsuits this week seeking to compel a faster UW turnaround for CIP Director Kate Starbird's communications with other Election Integrity Partnership leaders and with outside participants, including government entities.

That would mean at least six groups had filed requests related to CIP and EIP, judging by Starbird's past statements.

UW's Oct. 18 response to PPT estimated it would take five months to fulfill two requests for Starbird's communications and hinted it could take longer, pledging to notify PPT if "additional time is needed," according to the suits filed in King County Superior Court.

The first request names Alex Stamos and Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory, which leads EIP with CIP; Emerson Brooking and Graham Brookie of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab; and Ben Nimmo and Camille Francois of social media analytics firm Graphika.

The second request names the State Department's Global Engagement Center, which funds and promotes anti-populist internet games abroad; Harvard's Defending Digital Democracy Project, cofounded by former Hillary Clinton campaign manager and Russia collusion narrative peddler Robby Mook; the U.S. government's outsourced "cloak-and-dagger R&D shop" Mitre Corporation; and liberal groups NAACP and Common Cause.

EIP partners mass-reported alleged election misinformation to tech platforms in the 2020 and 2022 cycles, with a tipline open to State's GEC and the Democratic National Committee, among others. By its own tracking, the consortium had a 35% success rate getting tech platforms to label, remove or restrict content.

It was founded "in consultation with" DHS' Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, according to EIP's after-action report on the 2020 election. EIP's launch webinar featured then-CISA Director Christopher Krebs, who formed a consultancy with SIO's Stamos after leaving government.

PPT targeted Starbird's communications because of her influence on government officials as a member of CISA's Cybersecurity Advisory Committee, and "media and popular interest" in her work at three-year-old CIP, whose avowed mission is "resisting strategic misinformation," the suits say.

She appeared on the public affairs program "The Open Mind" in April 2021, accusing Facebook of not meeting its "moral and ethical obligations" because it allowed "mis- and disinformation from a foreign power" in the 2016 election and a "domestic disinformation campaign" in 2020.

"[W]e have pretty good evidence that there's some relationship" between Facebook and the rise of "right-wing populism ... radicalization and authoritarianism in different kinds of places," Starbird said.

Former Trump administration Department of Education official Michael Chamberlain founded PPT last year, with an initial focus on exposing corruption in the Energy and Interior departments

PPT also filed an ethics complaint this week against CISA Director Jen Easterly, who replaced Krebs, for promoting nonfiction books from her agency Twitter account.

"The records in Washington State may be one of the few windows into the censorship machine created by the government to outsource, and thus plausibly deny, efforts to violate Americans' free speech rights," Chamberlain said in PPT's press release.

He credited the Foundation for Freedom Online, founded by fellow Trump administration alum and former State Department official Mike Benz, for connecting the dots on EIP's work.

Days before PPT submitted its requests in October, and a week after JTN's first report on the EIP, Starbird said CIP had received five public records requests stemming from scrutiny of EIP, which she characterized as coming from "right wing media/influencers."

The requests "will likely take years to complete, as they have now discovered they can weaponize our transparency laws to harass my colleagues and me (at a public university)," the former WNBA player wrote in a lengthy tweet thread.  

Some requests are "so broad that they'd require 100s of hours of work to assemble — essentially look[ing] like a denial of service attack, attempting to make it untenable to continue our research," Starbird said. She has since marked her tweets private and put her account "to sleep for the time being," her Twitter bio reads.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression backed Starbird's assessment of the requests' threat to academic freedom, but undermined her characterization of the requests as a right-wing attack by posting them. 

Three of the five are from left-leaning groups: the Government Accountability Project, which has its own election integrity project; investigative publisher The Intercept; and corporate-influence watchdog Tech Inquiry

The others are from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, whose request appears to be the broadest, and the Daily Caller News Foundation. Schmitt is also suing the feds for alleged censorship by proxy through tech platforms, and recently deposed soon-to-retire White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci.

Washington law puts the burden of proof on state agencies to show their anticipated response timeline is "reasonable" and empowers courts to shorten those timelines, PPT's suits say. 

UW's five-month estimate is not reasonable because it hasn't told PPT how many records might be covered or if they can be searched "mostly or even entirely via electronic means" or explained "any staffing, logistical, or other challenges which preclude a faster response." 

It's not even clear the university "actually searched or took any affirmative step in response to the request," judging by its disclaimer about "additional time," which suggests the five-month estimate is "pure guesswork," the suits say.

Production delays harm the public interest, PPT argues. "[T]hose who would like to exercise their own First Amendment rights have an interest in being made aware of the efforts of the government to hinder such speech in an expeditious manner," the watchdog told the court.

UW didn't respond to Just the News requests for an explanation of the timelines it gave PPT and other requesters.

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