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In 2 States, Clashes Over Laboratory Data

March 16, 2006

As an animal rights group, a public university and a pet food company prepare for a legal battle in Mississippi over access to research records and laboratory tests, Ohio's Supreme Court sided with academic scientists in a similar lawsuit filed by another group that opposes studies involving animals.

In Mississippi, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit alleging that Mississippi State University violated the Mississippi Public Records Act by denying PETA access to records of lab tests the university had conducted as part of a contract with the pet food manufacturer Iams Co. since 1999.

Last month, Iams, which has similar contracts with other universities, asked the state judge in the case to allow the company to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of Mississippi State. PETA did not object to the motion, and no date has been set for a hearing.

Legal experts say a judge’s ruling in the case could shed light on how courts view the competing interests of public universities seeking to extend the scope of their research through contracts with private commercial entities and the public’s right of access to a public body’s records.

John Vaughn, executive vice president at the Association of American Universities, said that if courts require public disclosure of private companies’ trade secrets or other private information, “it may affect their willingness to cooperate in an arrangement with a public university or invest in projects.”

On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court sided with Ohio State University in a lawsuit brought late last year by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It sought access to photographs, videotapes and other records compiled as a part of the university's spinal cord injury training program. The committee argued that mice and rats were being subjected to injury and put through painful surgeries and procedures before being killed.

The court accepted the university's argument that the records are intellectual property and therefore exempted from disclosure under the Ohio Public Records Act. The case hinged on whether the research had been "publicly released, published or patented." The court found that the information wasn't available to the public and had never been released.

"This ruling should ease scientists' concerns that their research might be compromised by disclosure of data, particularly in areas of controversial biomedical research," Doug Kniss, senior associate vice president for research at Ohio State, said in a statement.

The Mississippi records act requires that public records be provided to the public either free of charge or for a reasonable fee. A provision in the act states that “trade secrets and confidential commercial and financial information of a proprietary nature developed by a college or university under contract with a firm … shall not be subject to inspection.”

Iams is asserting that the studies are the intellectual property of the company, and that documents requested by PETA amount to proprietary information that contain trade secrets.

James P. Streetman III, a lawyer for Iams, could not be reached for comment despite numerous attempts. He told the Associated Press that if the documents are disclosed, the company “will suffer irreparable injury and harm.” An Iams spokesman, Kurt Iverson, said the company did not want to comment on the open litigation.

Mary Beth Sweetland, director of research and investigations for PETA, said that an internal investigation into practices -- including dental experiments -- at Mississippi State prompted the group's open records request.

"We aren't interested in proprietary material or trade information. We want to know what type of treatment the animals are subjected to,” Sweetland said.

Lori Kettler, senior counsel for the research and investigation department at PETA, said Mississippi State initially wanted an advance fee of about $40,000 for the more than 25,000 pages of documents. Kettler said after PETA reduced the number of pages it sought, university lawyers said the 19 pages that did not contain proprietary information would be disclosed at a cost of about $1,000.

Kettler said the costs were “unreasonable” and fell outside the boundaries of the public records act. She said a ruling in favor of the university in the case would set bad precedent.

“When a private company decides to contract with a public entity, they need to realize that they can’t keep information confidential,” Kettler said. “The public needs to know what happens with their money.”

A Mississippi State spokeswoman, Maridith Geuder, said the university's response to PETA's request has been “appropriate, and it’s working its way through the appropriate channels.”

This is not the first time PETA has sought public records from universities that partner with Iams. The organization has submitted similar requests to 15 other universities, according to Kettler.

 

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