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High court rules Cornell must disclose financial documents

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  1. Freedom of Information

    News Media Update         NEW YORK         Freedom of Information         Feb. 24, 2005    

High court rules Cornell must disclose financial documents

  • Cornell University was only partially successful in its appeal of a decision granting full access to records of agricultural research.

Feb. 24, 2005 — The New York State Court of Appeals unanimously agreed to grant half of Cornell University’s appeal that, as a private university, it should not have to disclose records spawned by programs that are partially funded by the state in response to requests made under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

The Feb. 17 decision ruled that only documents pertaining to finances are subject to Freedom of Information requests at Cornell. The court sent the case back to a lower court to decide which of the disputed documents fall under this ruling.

The 7-0 decision followed FOI requests by Jeremy Alderson that were denied during the summer of 2000. Alderson, a former central New York radio broadcaster, sought records pertaining to research activities and finances from Cornell’s Agricultural Experiment Station, located near his former station in Geneva, N.Y., and the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), which is one of four “statutory colleges” that Cornell manages that are partially funded by the state.

Alderson was concerned about research that could potentially harm crops, food or humans. “I think Cornell arrogantly and menacingly endangered the welfare of the entire region by conducting dangerous, unwise and profit-driven experiments,” Alderson said in a Dow Jones International News article.

Cornell refused the FOI Law requests based on the decision from a prior case, Stoll v. New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, in which the courts held that the because the school “is responsible for discipline at the statutory colleges . . . it is not a state agency subject to [Freedom of Information Laws].”

A lower court denied that claim and ultimately held that Cornell was required to respond to all of Alderson’s FOIL requests because the Agricultural Experiment Station “was a state agency created to fulfill a ‘public purpose.'”

The lower courts erred in concluding all of the documents were subject to FOIL, Justice Victoria Graffeo ruled. “Because Cornell is vested by statute with broad authority over all ‘matters pertaining to . . . educational policies, activities and operations, including research work’ at CALS and the Agricultural Experiment Station, documents relating to those activities involve a private function and are . . . not subject to FOIL.”

Alderson at the time hosted a local public radio show that has since been cancelled. He has since run unsuccessfully for Congressional Representative of New York’s 29th district in the 2004 election. He used the case as an example of his environmental concern in his campaign.

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

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