Court: Cornell records open

NEW YORK — In an open-records battle spanning more than four years between the Cornell University School of Agriculture and a radio talk-show host, the highest state court ruled partly in favor of each side in February.

In June and July 2000, WEOS public radio talk-show host Jeremy Alderson submitted state Freedom of Information Law requests for research activities and financial matters involving the Agricultural Experiment Station and a proposed Agriculture Technical Park at Cornell. Cornell denied both requests and said because the university is not a state agency, it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Law, which requires that government records be accessible to the public.

The New York Appellate Court ruled that some of Cornell’s documents must be released as public information because they involved taxpayers’ 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.

“This case is a bit unique because Cornell really is an aberration,” said Joel Kaplan, professor of communications law at the Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University. “Most universities are either public or private. Public universities are subject to freedom of information laws because they are funded 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.”

There are “public aspects” of Cornell, according to court documents. Under the New York Education Law, Cornell manages four statutory colleges—the College of Human Ecology, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, School of Industrial and Labor Relations and College of Veterinary Medicine—which are partly supported by public funds.

Cornell “steadfastly” said that it was not, under any circumstances, subject to the Freedom of Information Law, said Dianne Campbell, Alderson’s attorney. Although the court did not agree with Alderson on all grounds, it did say that Cornell could be subject to the Freedom of Information Law.

Schools like Cornell, facing requests like Alderson’s, must be more willing to produce public documents in order to encourage a quality learning environment, Kaplan said.

“The truth is that all universities believe in the marketplace of ideas,” Kaplan said. “They promote it. So all universities should be more willing to release the type of information asked for by Mr. Alderson.”

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 Cornell has autonomous control over the documents requested.

“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 decision 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.

“We drew blood, and I’m proud of that,” Alderson said. “The court had already ruled in [another freedom of information case] that some of Cornell’s documents were exempt from freedom of information laws, so we weren’t surprised that some documents stayed exempt. The real breakthrough was that the court made some documents available.”

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 fact that this case has taken nearly five years speaks to the real problems with freedom of information laws and more importantly, the “sad state of affairs in the United States,” where public information is repeatedly shielded from the public, Kaplan said.

“The government doesn’t want to release information because it’s embarrassing to them or because they want to keep what they are doing from the public,” Kaplan said. “Universities are no different.”

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.”

But problems still remain with freedom of information laws, said Kaplan and Michelle Rea, the executive director of the New York Press Association.

“There is no incentive for officials to release the documents,” Kaplan said. “Even if they are found in violation, the only repercussion is that they must release the records. So officials simply refuse, pending a court order.”

Rea said that if disclosure would harm an individual, a business or keep a government agency from conducting its business, some aspects of the requested records would likely be exempt from disclosure. But she said that freedom of information laws need to be strengthened with added penalties and sanctions to force agencies to comply with the law within a reasonable time frame.

“If it’s legal for public institutions to evade scrutiny, they will enjoy their freedom,” Alderson said. “If it’s legal for us to scrutinize them, we will enjoy ours."

Cornell University, New York, reports, Spring 2005