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University foundation donor names are privacy-protected

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   KENTUCKY   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   May 24, 2005

University foundation donor names are privacy-protected

  • Names of donors to a university foundation are not public under Kentucky’s open records law because their release is more likely to reveal information about private individuals than about governmental operations, a state intermediate appellate court ruled.

May 24, 2005  ·   A Kentucky newspaper is not entitled to the names of individual donors to a university foundation because they are categorically private and exempt from open records law disclosure requirements, a state appellate court ruled, partially reversing a lower court decision. The ruling is the latest judicial decision surrounding a four-year-old dispute.

Judge Julia Tackett, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, agreed with the foundation that “whether a donor has specifically requested anonymity” has no bearing on the weight of the donor’s privacy versus the public’s interest in the donors’ names.

In balancing the donors’ privacy concerns against the public’s interest, Tackett conceded a “theoretical connection . . . between the identity of the donors and the way the University eventually expends money raised.” But the court cited other Kentucky open records cases in which requested information “would reveal little or nothing about the operations of the public agency and much about the private individuals.”

The court’s ruling came four years after Keith Runyon, opinion editor of The [Louisville] Courier-Journal, requested the names of all University of Louisville Foundation donors. Initially, the foundation argued that as a non-profit corporation, its records were not subject to Kentucky open records law, an argument dismissed by the state Court of Appeals in November 2003.

Once the foundation was deemed a government entity whose records were subject to the open records law, the question became whether the privacy exemption protected the donors’ names.

In September 2003, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen K. Mershon ruled that privacy concerns only protected a donor’s name from release when confidentiality was specifically requested at the moment of the gift. Both parties in that case, The Courier-Journal and the University of Louisville Foundation, were dissatisfied with the degree of ordered disclosure and permitted exemption, respectively, and they both appealed.

The records battle has been litigated piecemeal over many years because Mershon has ruled on the case’s various issues in separate opinions. In November, for example, Mershon resolved the donor-name-privacy issue with respect to corporate donors in much the same way his September 2003 decision — now reversed by Tackett’s May 20 ruling — treated private individual donors’ names.

(The University of Louisville Foundation, Inc. v. Cape Publications, Inc. d/b/a The Courier Journal; Media Counsel: Jon Fleischaker, Dinsmore & Shohl LLP; Louisville, Ky.)RL

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