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University must release information on grant proposals

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  1. Freedom of Information
WASHINGTON -- The University of Washington must reveal information about a research grant proposal involving animal experimentation, except for certain…

WASHINGTON — The University of Washington must reveal information about a research grant proposal involving animal experimentation, except for certain materials that fall within several state nondisclosure statutes as well as some of the exemptions to the state open records act, according to a 5-3 decision in late November by the Supreme Court of Washington.

The Progressive Animal Welfare Society asked the University of Washington in January 1991 for a copy of an unfunded grant proposal to study brain development in asocially raised monkeys. PAWS also sought documents evaluating the project and its request for funding.

The university public records officer denied PAWS’s request. PAWS appealed to the university president, who denied the appeal in early March 1991. Consequently, PAWS filed a complaint with the Superior Court for King County in early April, alleging violations of the state open records act.

The university moved for summary judgement, arguing that the entire proposal was exempt from disclosure. PAWS conceded that some of the information was exempt from disclosure, but argued that it was entitled to see other aspects of the proposal and supporting materials.

The trial court examined the materials, excised some, and granted PAWS summary judgment with respect to the rest. The court awarded PAWS attorney fees, but declined to award punitive damages.

The university appealed to the state court of appeals, PAWS cross-appealed to the state supreme court, and the university’s appeal was transferred to the supreme court.

The state supreme court held that under state open records act exemptions, the university could excise personal information about university employees, materials that might divulge valuable research information, and any preliminary opinions about the research or its request for funding.

The court also concluded that the University could excise proprietary information falling under the State Uniform Trade Secrets Act and identifying information falling within a state statute designed to protect animal researchers from harassment.

The court dismissed, however, university arguments that First Amendment notions of academic freedom required nondisclosure, and that the Federal Freedom of Information Act and other federal statutes preempt application of the state open records act.

The supreme court affirmed the trial court’s decision, but remanded the case for the trial court to redetermine whether the university had inappropriately withheld or excised any materials, and to determine attorney’s fees.

(Progressive Animal Welfare Society v. University of Washington)

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