Cornell U. must release records of financial activities, N.Y. court rules

NEW YORK — The state’s highest court ruled partly in favor of each side in an open records battle spanning more than four years involving Cornell University’s School of Agriculture and a radio talk-show host.

In June and July 2000, WEOS public radio talk-show host Jeremy Alderson submitted freedom of information requests for records of research activities and financial matters involving the Agricultural Experiment Station and a proposed Agriculture Technical Park at Cornell, a private university that oversees four publicly-funded state colleges. Cornell denied both requests and said the university is not a state agency and therefore not subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law, which specifies that public records must be accessible to the public.

The New York Court of Appeals ruled that some of Cornell’s documents must be released as public information because it involved public money. However, other documents, including prospective research and ongoing research about genetically modified crops, are not subject to the Freedom of Information Law, the court ruled.

“Until [Feb. 18], Cornell was saying steadfastly that they were not–under any circumstances–subject to the Freedom of Information Law,” said Dianne Campbell, Alderson’s attorney. “The court didn’t agree with us under all the circumstances, but they said, ‘Yes they [Cornell] are subject to the Freedom of Information Law.’”

The issue in this case is not whether the Agricultural Experiment Station or the proposed Agricultural Technical Park are intended to fulfill a public purpose, the court said, but whether the documents requested pertain to areas over which Cornell retains autonomous control.

There are “public aspects” of Cornell, the court ruled. Under the New York Education Law, Cornell manages four “statutory colleges,” which are partly supported by public funds.

“Cornell has significant autonomy over academic activities at the colleges but is accountable to the trustees of the State University of New York and other state agencies for the manner in which public funds are expended,” the court said.

The appellate court ruled that the documents Alderson requested fall into two categories: those that deal with research and academic activities–which are not subject to the Freedom of Information Law–and those that involve financial records and sources of funding, which are subject to the law.

A state trial court ruled in February 2004 that Cornell was subject to the Freedom of Information Law and ordered the court to submit, with some exceptions, to Alderson’s requests.

“This shows that when you take a swing at a bully, his head snaps back like anyone else’s,” Alderson said. “My personal concern is for the way Cornell is endangering us all with its reckless release of genetically modified organisms. I hope this judgement encourages all of Cornell’s critics to legally pummel the university until it goes down for the count.”

Cornell released a statement that said the university is pleased with the ruling that research records are private and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Law.

“The court unanimously declared that Cornell has control of research and academic activities,” said James Mingle, Cornell University counsel. “That’s been the central issue as far as we’re concerned.”

The case will now return to a trial court, which will determine whether specific documents relate to the school’s research activities or financial matters.

Although Alderson was not granted full access to Cornell’s documents, his legal team sees the ruling as an important step for the Freedom of Information Law.

“This ruling is important in the large sense because freedom of information is crucial for democracy,” Campbell said. “I think it’s imperative that the governed know what their governors are doing.”

–By Elisabeth Salemme

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