Former newspaper editor sues campus agency for access to bookstore records

NEW YORK — What started out as a routine story idea led to a lawsuitfiled by the former editor of the Hudson Valley College student newspaper.

Tony Gray claims officials from Hudson’s Faculty-Student Association,which operates the school’s bookstore, are violating the state’s Freedomof Information Law by denying The Hudsonian access to invoices fortextbooks the store sold to students.

The paper first sought the records in January for inclusion in a storyexamining bookstore prices and whether the store is overcharging studentsby inflating book prices. The Hudsonian staff wanted to examine theamount the FSA paid for books in order to compare it to the prices charged.

Gray submitted a FOIL request to Ann Carrozza, the association’s recordsaccess officer. Carrozza offered to provide edited versions of the invoices– without the prices.

In a letter to Gray, Carrozza claimed the invoices were exempted undera state law that protects records that “are trade secrets or are submittedto an agency by a commercial enterprise or derived from information obtainedfrom a commercial enterprise and which, if disclosed, would cause substantialinjury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise.”

Gray appealed Carrozza’s decision to Willie Hammett, FSA president,who affirmed Carrozza’s opinion that the organization did not have to disclosethe records, writing that the information “is valuable to the FSA, wouldbe valuable to its competitors, has been developed as a result of the expenditureof time, effort and money and is the subject of measures to protect itssecrecy.”

In response to Hammett’s letter, Gray sought and received an advisoryopinion from the New York State Department’s State Committee on Open Government,which sided with the student newspaper.

In the report claiming that the association should be subject to theFOIL law, Robert Freeman, the committee’s executive director, wrote thathe could find “no ground for denial [that] could justifiably be assertedto withhold any aspect of the invoices.”

Gray provided the FSA with a copy of Freeman’s report, but he receivedno response.

“When we exhausted our administrative remedies, we filed suit askingthe court to give us relief and force them to turn over the documents,”Gray said.

Brian Culnan, the attorney representing Gray, said he thinks the association’stwo main arguments-that the cost of the books is a trade secret and thatdisclosing the prices would hurt the bookstore’s business-are without merit.

He said that although New York law allows for use of those claims forexemption, it does not apply to the FSA because in order to use the exemption,the competitive harm must occur to someoutside agency.

“The agency of whom the freedom of information request is made cannotinvoke the exemption for competitive harm when the competitive harm wouldoccur to the business interests of the agency itself,” Culnan said.

In her affidavit, Carrozza disputed the classification of the associationas an agency.

“Although I recognize that the FSA may be an ‘agency’ within the meaningof FOIL, it is also an enterprise, and its purchase and sale of books isa commercial enterprise as much as when the purchase and sale of booksis done by [any other book-seller],” she said.

Gray said as a result of his suit, the FSA has received a lot of badpublicity that could have been avoided if the association had simply releasedthe invoices when he first requested them.

“It would have gone away by now,” Gray said. “Nobody can really understandit other than the fact that they are seriously screwing the students onthe price of books, and they are embarrassed to have it made public.”

Culnan said the association makes a large profit off the bookstore,and students have a right to know if they are being overcharged.

“One of the ironies in this case is that the people operating the bookstoreare the faculty student association, which should be trying to protectthe interests of the students, and yet they don’t want this informationout,” Culnan said.

Culnan said the case is pending in the New York Supreme Court of RensselaerCounty, where the judge will determine if he will hear oral arguments orrule on the papers submitted.