A long awaited court submission by United Kingdom Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham to the Information Review Tribunal offered no new surprises. Denham has defended Republic of China in-exile President Tsai Ing-wen from public scrutiny by arguing that Tsai’s privacy right trumps the need for verification of her 1984 University of London PhD degree.
President Tsai triggered an academic firestorm about the legitimacy of her doctoral degree by submitting her thesis to the London School of Economics Library in June 2019, thirty-five years late. The tardy thesis, entitled “Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Actions” that Tsai submitted was unbound and appears to be a draft document with pagination problems, footnote issues, and handwritten notations including a question mark.
It turns out the phantom thesis was also not filed with the Senate House Library of the University of London, although the school has contradicted itself on the matter by now claiming it was lost during “restructuring” of the library. Tsai’s thesis was additionally missing from the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, the national law library.
Tsai gave a video interview about her thesis claiming two thesis examiners, an economist and a law professor, who examined her scholarship were so pleased they said she deserved a double degree. However, Tsai refuses to name the two thesis examiners.
The London School of Economics, where Tsai studied in 1981-1982, declines to name the examiners but says they examined Tsai on a Sunday, October 16, 1983. Because LSE was then unable to award its own doctoral degrees, the University of London issued Tsai her diploma in 1984. LSE says the University of London has all the records. The University refuses to disclose the names of the thesis examiners.
The matter then went to the Information Commissioner who upheld a privacy shield for President Tsai. The decision that Tsai’s privacy overrides all other concerns led to an appeal to the Information Review Tribunal where the dispute is now under consideration. Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has now told the court that Tsai’s privacy rights are more important than verification of the thesis examination and belittled the language of the appeal.
“The Appellant’s grounds are lengthy and it is difficult to ascertain what they are.” Denham then choose to only respond to selected paragraphs of the appeal ignoring other portions on the premise she didn’t understand them. Starting at the end, Denham dismissed one of the appeal’s requests, that the London School of Economics and the University of London be required to develop a plan of correction for responses to Freedom of Information requests.
“The Tribunal’s powers are limited and as such cannot compel the Commissioner to enforce non-compliance of any public authority, nor can it issue any other ‘remedial sanctions’ apart from cost and contempt applications, both of which have a very high bar.”
Denham did concede the legitimate interest in verification of the thesis. “As well as recognizing the Appellant’s private interest the Commissioner also agreed there was a wider public interest in the information…because the President was a public figure and there has been speculation about her time at the University and thesis.”
“The Commissioner maintains it is not necessary for the information requested to be disclosed to the world at large.” Denham said the thesis is now available online, was listed in an index published in 1985, and the University gave its word all is well.
“The University has advised that, in its responses to separate FOI requests, it has stated that it holds records of the viva and pass list in regard to this graduate—President Tsai—and can therefore confirm the award of the degree.”
Denham’s reliance on the 1985 bibliographic index entitled Legal Research in the United Kingdom, 1905-1984 is at odds with one of the appeal’s exhibits that Denham ignored, an email from the AILS library that it never had the thesis. Further, Denhan failed to rely on AILS official records of its collection and instead relied on the privately published index, a point made in the portion of the appeal that Denham professed to not understand.
Denham also found as persuasive a public relations release by the London School of Economics that the thesis was properly awarded. Denham ignored the fact that LSE was unable to issue its own degrees at that time and turned the degree award to the University of London over which LSE had no control or quality assurances.
Denham says she has been paying attention to the news about the thesis. “Separately, the Commissioner has news reports of the President taking court action against those who have questioned the validity of her thesis.”
“The Commissioner is thus persuaded that the validity of the thesis has been demonstrated by the above, and that releasing the names of the examiners and the requested date is not necessary.”
Denham’s response to the appeal was tardy and outside of the case management order. Although no objection to the tardiness has been made, the court has not yet permitted the formal filing of the response. Until a decision is rendered on the tardy response no reply date has yet been set.
The University of London has not intervened in the case, thus the school is now limited to Denham’s partial response to the appeal. The school’s lawyers, likely unaware Denham did not understand the appeal, may now be wishing they had intervened.