Public universities can use 'trade secrets' exemption to withhold records, Conn. high court rules

CONNECTICUT — Publicuniversities can withhold records, including lists of season ticket holders, astrade secrets, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto submitted a freedom ofinformation request for database information from the University of Connecticutin 2008. The request included the athletic department’s season ticketpurchasers, the performing arts database of subscribers and ticket buyers, theCenter for Continuing Studies’ database of people interested in programsoffered and the library’s database of donors.

A lower court declared three of the four databases tradesecrets under the statute as “customer lists.” The library’s database of donorswas not considered a customer list, but the court remanded it back to the state’sFreedom of Information Commission to determine if the list may still beprotected under the trade secret exemption.

In University ofConnecticut v. Freedom of Information Commission, the state’s highestcourt upheld that decision, declaring for the first time that records createdby public agencies can qualify as trade secrets.

“Specifically, weconsider whether a public agency that creates and maintains information thatwould constitute a trade secret if created by a private entity must engage in a‘trade’ in order to shield such information from disclosure under the act. Weanswer that question in the negative,” according to the court’s unanimousopinion. “If the information meets the statutory criteria, it is a trade secretand the entity creating that information would be engaged in a trade forpurposes of the act even if it was not so engaged for all purposes.”

The court’s decision will become binding Connecticut lawunless there is a legislative change to the act, said Colleen Murphy, executivedirector and legal counsel for Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.The FOIC does not plan on proposing a legislative change, Murphy said.

Pelto said he never meant the requests to create such aprolonged and high profile dispute but doesn’t think the state Supreme Courtrealizes the impact of its decision.

“Nobody in their wildest imagination would suggest all ofthese lists are trade secrets, yet this is what the state Supreme Court hasdone,” Pelto said.

Michael Kirk, a spokesman for UConn, said in a statementthat the university is happy with the decision.

“The university is pleased that the court affirmed thatthese trade secrets can be protected. Being able to safeguard this kind of datais vital to an institution like UConn,” Kirk wrote in the statement.

Pelto said he requested the information to build a supportnetwork for an organization, Friends of UConn.

“I set up this organization to call out the University whenit was wrong because no one else was doing it,” Pelto said.

Murphy said at some point in the future the commission willdecide if the library database qualifies as a trade secret.