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Cornell FOILed again; appeal rejected

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Cornell FOILed again; appeal rejected

  • The university’s request for an appeal in a ruling requiring it to turn over documents concerning its agriculture college was denied by the state’s high court.

March 4, 2003 — The New York Court of Appeals Friday rejected Cornell University’s request for appeal of a lower court ruling that it must comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

A state supreme court appellate panel in Albany ruled Nov. 7, 2002 that a private institution performing a public function is subject to the FOIL. The mid-level appellate court ordered Cornell University to disclose records relating to its biotechnology research including safety protocols, compliance documents and corporate contracts. The five-judge panel ruled that the purpose of the creation of Cornell University’s statutory colleges was to serve a public function and therefore the school is subject to the FOI Law.

The ruling came after two and a half years of discussion between Jeremy Alderson, a former radio talk-show host, and Cornell University regarding documents he requested concerning its New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) as well as its Geneva-based New York Agricultural Experiment Station.

Alderson was seeking information regarding the university’s research into genetically modified plants. Alderson said the documents fall into two categories: safety data and documents relating to Cornell’s relationship with corporations.

“If we win, we’ll get a glimpse at just how thoroughly this major research institution has actually taken steps to protect the public. And what dangers they themselves may know exist, which they have not put in their press releases,” Alderson said. “If we get the other documents, we’ll know how much of Cornell’s work was, as they like to claim, is humanitarian and how much of it was driven by some what kind of a profit motive.”

Four statutory or “contract” colleges established by the New York state legislature are located at Cornell University. Although one-third of funding for the colleges comes from the State University of New York system’s budget, the colleges are primarily administered by Cornell.

The court noted that the legislature created CALS to improve agricultural methods and the experiment station to assist agricultural improvement through science and experimentation. Both bear “significant indicia of a public function,” the court said.

The move by the Court of Appeals does not mean Alderson’s battle is over. The court dismissed Cornell’s appeal based on the premise the order they are appealing from is not a final order.

“What that means is that when we were in the trial court, the judge said Cornell has to turn over the documents, except those that fall into exemptions,” said Diane Campbell, Alderson’s attorney.

There was a stay until Cornell had a chance to appeal. If Cornell wants to continue to withhold information, it must prove that each documents falls into one of the exemptions to FOIL.

“It’s a clear victory for us but at the same time, I have admit to I’m getting impatient,” Alderson said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll get the documents in the end. But it certainly looks like it will be months and months more.”

(Jeremy W. Alderson v. New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University et al.; Counsel: Diane Campbell, Lo Pinto, Schlather, Solomon & Salk, Ithaca, N.Y.) –JL


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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