Florida has seen a number of important court cases against tobacco companies in recent years, but one decision may have unexpected results for the rights of scholars and authors to keep their work private.
Stanford professor Robert Proctor is an outspoken critic of tobacco companies, which he believes knew about the health risks of cigarettes earlier than they claim.
Proctor is an expert witness in several pending Florida trials against tobacco company R. J. Reynolds. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the company is desperately trying to get access to his unpublished book on the industry titled “The Golden Holocaust.”
A judge in Volusia County ruled in August that R. J. Reynolds could subpoena Proctor for the work-in-progress.
This is a clear violation of Proctor’s right to privacy. Though the book is about the tobacco company, it should not be considered relevant in the Florida trials.
In a deposition, Proctor said the book “will contain previously unpublished information regarding tobacco-industry practices.” However, it is unfinished, unedited and has not been peer reviewed or fact checked.
This could set a dangerous precedent for everyone in academe. Authors do not want their work to be exposed to the public before it is even finished.
According to the Chronicle, Ann M. Arvin, Stanford’s dean of research, sent a letter to the court warning it of the dangers of forcing academic researchers to release work that is not ready for publication.
Arvin said it “could have the detrimental effect of discouraging scholars from participating as expert witnesses in litigation.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs suing the tobacco company want the court to reconsider the decision.
In a hopeful decision earlier this month, a Duval County judge ruled that Proctor did not have to divulge his book, but the ruling is not binding for cases outside of Duval, according to Science magazine.
Bill Ogle, a lawyer for Proctor, hopes other counties will follow suit. He said to Science that the ruling was issued because of the free-speech issues it raised. Ogle said a scholar or author has certain constitutionally protected rights, including withholding speech until they see fit.
Other Florida courts should follow this example. They should not allow the tobacco industry to reach beyond its legal rights, compromise the privacy of others and set a dangerous precedent.