March 2, 2004

Court Rules Against Cornell

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The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court ordered Cornell to hand over some of the requested Genetically-Modified Organism-related (GMO) documents to Jeremy Alderson on February 10. Alderson, a former talk-show host critical of the school’s stance that they are not bound by New York’s Freedom of Information Law, has cited this latest case as “one more step of many steps. But we’re getting closer.”

Alderson’s attorney Diane Campbell J.D. ’97, of the firm of LoPinto, Schlather, Solomon and Salk, agreed, saying “It’s been a long haul, and I expect it to be longer.”

Alderson’s involvement in the case began in 2000, when he mentioned GMOs on his talk show, “The Nobody Show.” He says that the listener feedback from the segment constituted the largest reaction to any issue he had brought up.

“A lot of people around here [the Finger Lakes region] are very sensitive about the environment,” he said.

Wanting to know more about Cornell’s planned Agriculture and Food Technology Park, which had started the original debate, Alderson put in a freedom of information request for related documents. The documents included risk assessments of GMOs performed by Cornell as well as financial and compliance records related to the park.

“The [now former] Geneva Ag Station director James Hunter wrote what I felt was a very condescending letter,” Alderson said. “The letter explained that Cornell didn’t need to divulge any information, because the precedent set in a court case had exempted them.”

Alderson researched the case and felt that it left the question of whether or not Cornell was bound by FOIL requests open. With Campbell’s aid, he went forward with the suit.

Throughout the suit, both Cornell and Campbell have admitted that the school’s position is in a rather gray area. The main contention on Alderson’s side is that Cornell’s statutory colleges and other programs which receive state funding should be subject to the Freedom of Information Law.

Cornell argues that, although it receives state funding, it is still a private entity and not subject to the law. So far, the court’s decisions have not gone far enough to please either party.

In 2001, the case was first heard before Tompkins County Supreme Court Justice Robert Mulvey. He denied Cornell’s motion to dismiss, and ruled that Cornell must turn over some, but not all, of the requested documents. Cornell then appealed the case to the Supreme Court Appellate Division, which ruled again the Cornell must hand over the related documents.

In the meantime, Cornell voluntarily handed over much of what it said was the requested information. Alderson expressed his doubts over the veracity of the documents. “They were, I feel, extremely dishonest in the information they gave the court,” he said. “I think that the document list they submitted was phony.”

Alderson cited information he received through a separate FOIL request as evidence that documents existed which Cornell had failed to mention.

After Cornell appealed the Appellate Court decision, the case was sent back before Justice Mulvey for further consideration. In February, he ruled that, of the 134 Cornell-submitted documents which he reviewed, 19 must be released in their entirety and another 64 must be released with a limited amount of confidential information blacked out.

When asked whether he felt this decision would resolve the issue, Alderson responded by saying “No, it’s not clear what direction they will take. This could still go on for a while.”

“If Cornell just hands over a few documents, that won’t satisfy anyone. Cornell has to admit that it’s not above the law,” he added, underlying his belief that Cornell should not only release the documents, but also be subject to future FOIL requests.

The school’s next legal actions are still undecided, said Linda Grace-Kobas, interim vice president for communications and media relations.

“We are still evaluating our options,” she said. When asked about the school’s position on the current ruling, she responded by saying, “We are gratified that the court recognized the substantial problems associated with public disclosure of research documents.”

Grace-Kobas declined further comment, citing the ongoing case.

Alderson also issued an appeal to President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, asking, “How can you defend the morality of what you’re doing? How can it be right for Cornell to do research that could endanger the Fingerlakes and not even let the people who live here know what safety precautions are in place?”

Archived article by Michael Morisy