November 15, 2002

Court Tells C.U. to Release GMO Data

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The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, the state’s second highest court, ruled last week that Cornell must turn over documents pertaining to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park in Geneva, NY.

“Cornell is conducting itself in a totally shameful manner and everyone who studies or works at Cornell should be concerned that the atmosphere of the University is polluted,” said Jeremy Alderson, who launched the lawsuit against Cornell.

At stake is a question of the public vs. private status of Cornell’s contract colleges under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

“With Cornell, you are kind of in a weird area,” said Dianne Campbell J.D. ’97, Alderson’s attorney.

Under state law, public agencies are required to turn over documents unless specifically excluded from coverage and Cornell’s state-backed organizations are therefore public agencies, according to Campbell.

The Cornell Ag and Food Tech Park, which is still in its planning stage, has received support from the state of New York. However, the University contends that the park is under the direction of a private institution.

Alderson and Campbell maintain that the statutory colleges and other programs that receive money from the State University of New York (SUNY) should be covered by the act.

The principle at stake matters more than the individual details of this case, according to Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations.

In Stoll v. SUNY College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, said that for the purposes of the FOIL, a determination must be made in each case whether the information requested was within the public or private domains of the University. If the current order remains intact, it could unleash further FOIL requests. However, whether or not the order forcing the University to release the documents will depend upon whether Cornell appeals the case and on the decision of the Court of Appeals to reverse or uphold the order.

For example, Dullea said, schools in the SUNY system are required to make professorial and staff salaries available, something that is generally sensitive.

“Our faculty and staff in the contract colleges are employees of Cornell University,” Dullea said. “They are not state employees.”

“The law is not totally black and white,” Dullea said. “You can find that Cornell is public pursuant to one statute but not necessarily to another.”

“In a democracy, it’s important that people have access to government procedures, documents and policies,” Campbell said, adding that government should not be allowed to pass along its information to a private institution to escape the FOIL.

Alderson, host of “The Nobody Show” and an advocate for the homeless, became concerned about GMOs when he heard that the Geneva Ag and Food Tech Park would house companies that might do GMO research.

“We, the people who live in the Finger Lakes region, are taking whatever risks there are in genetically modified organisms,” Alderson said.

Alderson contends that the long-term consequences of GMOs are potentially hazardous for the environment and for human health.

“As the rich become more powerful and arrogant, the people lose the right to know what it is they’re eating, and even what it is that’s growing right next to them,” he said.

Alderson filed FOIL requests for information on field tests using GMO crops at the park, risk assessments of GMOs, potential tenants of the Ag and Food Tech Park, and other financial statements, funding sources and compliance records related to the park.

“We offered to provide much of the material requested voluntarily,” Dullea said. Alderson said that the University’s offer was insubstantial.

Campbell’s law firm, Lo Pinto, Schlather, Solomon and Salk, took Alderson’s case without charge.

“It’s costing them money because they think it’s an important thing to do,” Campbell said.

Archived article by Peter Norlander