Request for names of teaching staff at Massey University
Section 9(2)(a) OIA did not apply—names already in the public domain and known to students—public-facing nature of the role means that University teaching staff would not ordinarily expect their names to remain private—risk of spam email was not a reason to withhold.
The Association of University Staff (AUS) made three separate requests to Massey University for the names of professors (176086), associate professors (177487), and lecturers (178335). The University refused the requests under section 9(2)(a) of the OIA, and AUS complained to the Ombudsman. The University was concerned that AUS would use the names to send unsolicited emails to staff.
Section 9(2)(a) of the OIA applies if withholding is ‘necessary to protect the privacy of natural persons’. After consulting the Privacy Commissioner, the Ombudsman formed the provisional opinion that section 9(2)(a) did not apply.
Much, if not all, of the information was already in the public domain. The names and contact details of teaching staff were available on the University’s website, or in the University Calendar. It was inconsistent to publish this information about teaching staff on the one hand (presumably in recognition of the importance of public access), while on the other claiming that release under the OIA would breach their privacy.
The public-facing nature of their role meant that teaching staff at a university would not ordinarily expect their names to remain private. The reputation of a university rests to a significant extent on the calibre and reputation of its academics. In that context, the Ombudsman found it hard to understand how a university could continue to function effectively if the identities of its teaching staff were considered confidential.
The fact that AUS might send unsolicited emails to staff was not a reason for withholding their names. Unsolicited emails are a fact of life in this day and age, and there are ways of dealing with them, for example, under the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act 2007.
The Ombudsman also noted that it would be open to the University to release the names with a statement to the effect that none of the listed individuals should be taken to have consented to an approach from the AUS by virtue of the information having been released. This would make it clear that if the union decided to send an unsolicited email, it could not rely on any notion of implied consent in respect of any individuals whose names were not already in the public domain.
After considering the Ombudsman’s provisional opinion, the University agreed to release the names, and the complaint was resolved.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.