This guest post on freedom of expression, academic research, privacy protection and access to official documents has been written by Professor Dirk Voorhoof. Professor Voorhoof is affiliated to both Ghent University (Belgium) and Copenhagen University (Denmark). He is also a Member of the Flemish Regulator for the Media. Further information on Professor Voorhoof can be found on his personal webpage here.
For further information on the topic of the post, see the website of the International Conference “Privacy and Scientific Research: from Obstruction to Construction”, taking place tomorrow, 23 November 2010 in Brussels, Belgium.
The European Court of Human Rights has delivered a judgment in an interesting case with a peculiar mix of issues related to freedom of expression, academic research, medical data, privacy protection and access to official documents. The defendant state is Sweden, a country very familiar with the principle and practice of access to official documents. The right of access to official documents has a history of more than two hundred years in Sweden and is considered one of the cornerstones of Swedish democracy. The case shows how access to official documents, included research documents containing sensitive personal data, can be granted to other researchers, albeit under strict conditions. The case furthermore demonstrates that Sweden applies effective procedures to implement orders granting access to official documents : those who refuse to open access to official documents after a court decision has ordered to do so can be convicted on the basis of criminal law. The case clearly reflects the idea that progress in scientific knowledge would be hindered unduly if the research methodology or scientific data analysis and the conclusions build on the data were not open to scrutiny, discussion and debate, albeit under strict conditions of privacy protection regarding medical data.