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Library resource redacted for public release

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Library resource redacted for public release

  • The Texas attorney general’s office gave Texas Tech University permission to withhold substantial portions of a crop science study about the toxin ricin under the public records act, even though the report is publicly available at the university library.

Feb. 4, 2004 — Even though a complete 1997 study concerning the highly toxic poison ricin is publicly available at the Texas Tech University library, the report was released under the Texas Public Information Act last month only after being heavily redacted by order of the state attorney general’s office.

In mid-October, the Sunshine Project, an international public interest group that studies the dangers of biological weapons, requested a study on ways to increase the concentration of ricin in castor beans. The information is contained in a 1997 master’s thesis on crop science.

Ricin is a poison that prevents a body’s cells from making the proteins it needs. Symptoms include fever and digestive and respiratory problems, and it can also cause death. There is no reliable method of confirming ricin exposure and there is no antidote. Traces of ricin found in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) this week forced U.S. Senate office buildings to close.

Despite the fact that the thesis is publicly available in the university’s library, and includes a notice of consent — signed by the author — to copy and distribute the paper, Texas Tech officials asked the state attorney general for permission to withhold it under the Texas Education Code and the Texas Homeland Security Act. The Texas Education Code protects intellectual property rights in discoveries made at state colleges and universities.

On Dec. 19, Assistant Attorney General Debbie K. Lee ruled that she was unable to determine whether the thesis has “actual or potential value” as intellectual property, and must therefore defer to the university’s judgment. Lee ordered that documents which “directly reveal the substance of research or proposed research of scientific or technological information that has the potential for being sold, traded or licensed” must be withheld.

However, Lee also ruled that other portions of the thesis contained only general background and budgetary information, and must be released. Lee rejected the university’s argument that the background and budgetary information could be withheld under the Homeland Security Act.

On Jan. 21, three days after the statutory deadline, the university released the thesis to the Sunshine Project. Of the 53 thesis’s pages, 30 were entirely deleted.

“It’s hard to decide who is more responsible for this scary (and darkly amusing) decision,” the Sunshine Project said in a written statement. “Texas Tech, for having the unbelievable temerity of trying to withhold a library book, or the Attorney General’s office, for apparently being so blasé in its ruling so as to permit Texas Tech to do so.”

(Texas Attorney General Opinion OR2003-9224, Dec. 19, 2003) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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