NEW YORK — In an open-records battle spanning more than fouryears between the Cornell University School of Agriculture and a radio talk-showhost, the highest state court ruled partly in favor of each side inFebruary.
In June and July 2000, WEOS public radio talk-show host JeremyAlderson submitted state Freedom of Information Law requests for researchactivities and financial matters involving the Agricultural Experiment Stationand a proposed Agriculture Technical Park at Cornell. Cornell denied bothrequests and said because the university is not a state agency, it is notsubject to the Freedom of Information Law, which requires that governmentrecords be accessible to the public.
The New York Appellate Court ruled thatsome of Cornell’s documents must be released as public information becausethey involved taxpayers’ money. However, other documents, includingprospective research and ongoing research about genetically modified crops, arenot subject to the Freedom of Information Law, the court ruled.
“Thiscase is a bit unique because Cornell really is an aberration,” said JoelKaplan, professor of communications law at the Newhouse School of Journalism atSyracuse University. “Most universities are either public or private.Public universities are subject to freedom of information laws because they arefunded by the taxpayers, and private universities, for the most part, are not.Cornell is a hybrid in that it is part public and part private.”
Thereare “public aspects” of Cornell, according to court documents. Underthe New York Education Law, Cornell manages four statutory colleges—theCollege of Human Ecology, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, School ofIndustrial and Labor Relations and College of Veterinary Medicine—whichare partly supported by public funds.
Cornell “steadfastly” saidthat it was not, under any circumstances, subject to the Freedom of InformationLaw, said Dianne Campbell, Alderson’s attorney. Although the court did notagree with Alderson on all grounds, it did say that Cornell could be subject tothe Freedom of Information Law.
Schools like Cornell, facing requests likeAlderson’s, must be more willing to produce public documents in order toencourage a quality learning environment, Kaplan said.
“The truth isthat all universities believe in the marketplace of ideas,” Kaplan said.“They promote it. So all universities should be more willing to releasethe type of information asked for by Mr. Alderson.”
The issue in thiscase is not whether the Agricultural Experiment Station or the proposedAgricultural Technical Park are intended to fulfill a public purpose, the courtsaid, but whether Cornell has autonomous control over the documentsrequested.
“Cornell has significant autonomy over academic activitiesat the colleges but is accountable to the trustees of the State University ofNew York and other state agencies for the manner in which public funds areexpended,” the court decision said.
The Appellate Court ruled that thedocuments Alderson requested fall into two categories: those that deal withresearch and academic activities—which are not subject to the Freedom ofInformation Law—and those that involve financial records and sources offunding—which are subject to the law.
“We drew blood, andI’m proud of that,” Alderson said. “The court had alreadyruled in [another freedom of information case] that some of Cornell’sdocuments were exempt from freedom of information laws, so we weren’tsurprised that some documents stayed exempt. The real breakthrough was that thecourt made some documents available.”
Cornell released a statement thatsaid the university is pleased with the ruling that research records are privateand are not subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
“The courtunanimously declared that Cornell has control of research and academicactivities,” said James Mingle, Cornell University counsel.“That’s been the central issue as far as we’reconcerned.”
The fact that this case has taken nearly five years speaksto the real problems with freedom of information laws and more importantly, the“sad state of affairs in the United States,” where publicinformation is repeatedly shielded from the public, Kaplan said.
“Thegovernment doesn’t want to release information because it’sembarrassing to them or because they want to keep what they are doing from thepublic,” Kaplan said. “Universities are nodifferent.”
Although Alderson was not granted full access toCornell’s documents, his legal team sees the ruling as an important stepfor the Freedom of Information Law.
“This ruling is important in thelarge sense because freedom of information is crucial for democracy,”Campbell said. “I think it’s imperative that the governed know whattheir governors are doing.”
But problems still remain with freedom ofinformation laws, said Kaplan and Michelle Rea, the executive director of theNew York Press Association.
“There is no incentive for officials torelease the documents,” Kaplan said. “Even if they are found inviolation, the only repercussion is that they must release the records. Soofficials simply refuse, pending a court order.”
Rea said that ifdisclosure would harm an individual, a business or keep a government agency fromconducting its business, some aspects of the requested records would likely beexempt from disclosure. But she said that freedom of information laws need to bestrengthened with added penalties and sanctions to force agencies to comply withthe law within a reasonable time frame.
“If it’s legal for publicinstitutions to evade scrutiny, they will enjoy their freedom,” Aldersonsaid. “If it’s legal for us to scrutinize them, we will enjoyours.”