Conservative Writer Accuses University of Illinois of Access Denied

Conservative Writer Accuses University of Illinois of Denying Access

Following accusations by conservative political writer Stanley Kurtz that the University of Illinois at Chicago blocked his access to documents that might portray presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in an unpatriotic light, the university issued a statement August 22 that the material will be “available for public inspection” August 26.

Charging that UIC’s Richard J. Daley Library prevented him from examining materials that might connect Obama’s political agenda with those of radical activist William Ayers, Kurtz had demanded that UIC “take immediate public steps to insure the safety of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge records, to release the identity of the collection’s donor, and above all to swiftly make the collection available to me, and to the public at large.”

The UIC statement says that “authority to grant public access to the archives was recently called into question” but that “university officials promptly initiated a thorough inquiry into the legal circumstances of the gift and its custody of the documents. Pending resolution of this challenge, access to the archives in their secure location was temporarily suspended.” It goes on to say that the university has “determined that the terms of the gift have been fulfilled and that it has the legal authority to allow public access to its archive of Chicago Annenberg Challenge documents in accordance with the customary procedures of the Special Collections Department of the UIC library.”

Established largely through the efforts of Ayers, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was a nonprofit public-private partnership founded in 1995 to improve school performance. Now a professor of education at UIC, Ayers is also an unapologetic former member of the Weather Underground, a leftist organization that organized a riot in Chicago in 1969 and bombed buildings in the 1970s. Obama served as the CAC board’s first chair; he remained on the board until the project ended in 2001 but has denied any ties with Ayers’s radical past.

Kurtz claimed in the August 18 National Review Online that he was “assured by a reference librarian that, although I have no UIC affiliation, I would be permitted to examine the records.” But after making an appointment and arranging a trip to Chicago, he “received an e-mail from the special-collections librarian informing me that she had ‘checked our collection file’ and determined that ‘access to the collection is closed.’” Once in Chicago, Kurtz said, he was greeted with a message from Ann C. Weller, professor and head of special collections, indicating that no one currently has access to the collection because “it has come to our attention that there is restricted material in the collection. Once the collection has been processed it will be open to any patron interested in viewing it.”

The Chicago Tribune reported August 21 that Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was asked at an August 20 press conference if he supported access to the CAC collection in the library, which bears the name of his late father, mayor of Chicago from 1955 to 1976. Daley urged instead that people should stop trying to align Obama with radical activities that took place during “a terrible time [for] our country.”

Although UIC is a publicly supported institution, the Daley Library is not a public library per se. UIC rules governing the use of special collection materials require “permission from the copyright owner before making any public disclosure of the contents.” The acquisition of materials does not automatically give the library the legal right to open the materials to the public or to reveal the identity of the donor or other confidential information that might be embedded in the documents.

The campaign of presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain issued a statement urging Obama to call for the release of the documents. The Associated Press reported August 21 that the Obama campaign said the senator has no control over the UIC documents, but “we are pleased the university is pursuing an agreement that would make these records publicly available.”

Posted on August 22, 2008; modified August 30, 2008. Discuss.