Cornell University's hybrid status -- mostly private, but with public parts -- protects it only in part from complying with state open records laws, New York's highest court ruled Thursday.
The decision by the New York Court of Appeals came in a lawsuit filed in 2000 by a former radio host who was critical of the university's biotechnology research efforts at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, which is part of Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. According to the Associated Press, Jeremy W. Alderson was concerned about research on genetically engineered crops and food.
Alderson sued after Cornell rejected his request, under the state's Freedom of Information Law, seeking financial and research records about the agriculture college and the experiment station, which are among several academic units at the university that the state helps fund. A lower court sided with him, ruling that Cornell had to release almost all of the records he sought.
A unanimous Court of Appeals, though, issued a more nuanced ruling. It rejected Cornell's argument that it was "categorically exempt" from the open records law, declaring that the university was obligated to release records related to its use of public funds, since the state maintains oversight over how the government financed parts of Cornell spend money.
But the court said the university could shield those records related to the research and academic activities at the state-related colleges. "Because Cornell is vested by statute with broad authority over all 'matters pertaining to ... educational policies, activities and operations, including research work' at CALS and the Agricultural Experiment Station, documents relating to those activities involve a private function and are therefore not subject" to the freedom of information law," the court declared.
The appeals court directed the lower court to decide which records qualified as being purely financial, requiring release, and which Cornell can protect from public view.