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Cornell University ordered to release documents under FOI Law

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         NEW YORK         Freedom of Information         Nov 20, 2002    

Cornell University ordered to release documents under FOI Law

  • A New York appellate court panel ruled Nov. 7 that Cornell University, a private institution, must disclose documents requested under the state’s freedom of information law because it performs a public function.

A private institution performing a public function is subject to state freedom of information law, a panel of the state Supreme Court Appellate Division in Albany ruled Nov. 7. 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 Cornell University’s statutory colleges, upon creation, significantly indicates a public function and therefore the school is subject to the FOI Law.

The ruling comes after two and a half years of discussion between Jeremy Alderson, a former radio talk-show host for WEOS in Geneva, N.Y., 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.

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.

Cornell University, according to Alderson, claims its work is safe according to internal risk assessments which were among the records he requested.. He said Cornell also claims that the biotech work is done with humanitarian intent and he wanted to know if the research “is funded by humanitarians.”

Alderson requested the documents in June 2000, after learning of proposals to construct an agriculture technology park in Geneva.

Vice President for University Relations Hank Dullea said the college has not yet decided whether it will appeal, but that litigation was pursued purely on the principle of whether or not the state FOI Law applies to Cornell.

The statutory colleges, Dullea said, are “integral parts of a private university carrying out a public mission pursuant to statute.” The records, he added, are “not available pursuant to the state freedom of information law.”

Alderson’s attorney Diane Campbell, who represents Alderson pro bono, disagrees.

Cornell is a private university. However, it has “a unique relationship with the state,” Campbell said. This relationship — which includes performing a public function and receiving public funds — makes the university subject to the FOI Law.

“In a democracy, its important to know what the government is doing,” Campbell added.

Dullea said that if Alderson had requested the documents from the university itself rather than filing an FOI Law request, “a very significant portion of them would have been disclosed years ago.”

During litigation, the university offered to provide some of the “voluminous amounts” of documents Alderson requested, Dullea said. Alderson said the offer was insufficient.

The decision is the latest in a series of cases across the country where courts have ruled that private institutions undergoing the “functional equivalent” of a public institution are subject to the state’s respective open records law. Tennessee, North Carolina, Oregon, Kansas and Florida are among those states.

Alderson said retrieval of documents will be the public’s best peek into what he calls the “corporatization of the university.” He said that educational institutions are increasingly abandoning their roles as centers of higher learning and refashioning themselves as profit-making institutions — a trend, he says, that the public has yet to fully scrutinize.

“If we get the documents this will be, I believe, a truly spectacular occurrence,” Alderson said.

(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.) AU

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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