Panel: Primate research records are public

UTAH — The State Records Committee ruled in January that the University of Utah must disclose documents relating to the school’s research on animals under the Government Records Access and Management Act.

But the university is still stonewalling attempts by student animal-rights activists to obtain the documents by charging them excessive fees, students said.

The State Records Committee got involved after the university denied requests for research records made by freshman Jeremy Beckham. The university claimed the information would disclose proprietary details of unpublished research and jeopardize the safety of scientists.

Beckham, the president and founder of the Utah Primate Freedom Project, requested research protocols, or documents detailing experiments, for all research on baboons and macaques in an Aug. 25 letter. He made another request Dec. 30 for protocols related to a specific marmoset. Researchers often use the protocols to procure federal and state grant money.  

Beckham’s organization is dedicated to stopping primate research, which members believe is inhumane and a waste of taxpayer dollars, claiming the research does not result in life-saving discoveries for humans.

The Utah Primate Freedom Project is an affiliate organization of the national Primate Freedom Project, which has groups on college campuses nationwide.

But Beckham’s apparent open-records victory was offset by further provisions of the Jan. 15 ruling, which gave the university the power to redact, or black out, what it deems proprietary information.

Also, the university can charge those requesting the records for time spent compiling the documents.

The university moved to grant Beckham’s request in a Feb. 20 letter from Phyllis J. Vetter, the university’s associate general counsel. The letter included an invoice for $299.08, specifying hourly rates for time spent sending the documents through a series of legal and technical reviews, and then a round of physical redactions.

Sophomore Kim Bowman, a member of Beckham’s organization, received a similar bill after he requested all information related to the marmoset he is “defending.” He was not happy about the charges.

“The quieter [the university] can keep [the primate research], the better for the grant money. And that’s what it comes down to: [the university’s] money and it making a name for itself in terms of intellectual property. It’s about money and it’s about careers — but it’s not about the animals,” Bowman said.

Another student, senior Lidya Hardy, requested a census of the dogs and cats kept at the university from 1998 to 2004 and a listing of those currently at the Animal Resource Center. She received a $737.17 bill that she must pay before the university gives her the documents.

“We [at the university] are trying to be realistic in the fact that it’s taking a lot of time to go through these documents redacting information that we feel — and the state records committee has told us — we have the right to redact. It’s a challenge for us because [fulfilling the requests] really could eat up a lot of time,” said Coralie Alder, director of public relations at the University of Utah.

The research, redaction, compilation and copying has been enough work to employ someone full time in the university’s legal department, she said.

“We’re really trying to minimize the costs,” Alder added.

But members of the animal-rights group said they see the fees as the university’s latest effort to withhold research information from the public.

“I believe the university feels sort of under siege by animal activists, so it’s just doing what it can to delay our efforts, because until we get this information, we can’t start an education campaign, because we won’t have the information to tell other people,” Beckham said.

The university denied Beckham’s request for a fee waiver. Beckham has appealed that decision.

Beckham said student animal-rights activists who are struggling to gain access to research protocols at other schools should be persistent.

“Use these slimy tactics to your advantage via media exposure. As the great Frederick Douglass said, ‘Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!’” he said.

OPINION: State Records Committee of the State of Utah, Case No. 04-01 (Jan. 21, 2004)