University of Connecticut v. Freedom of Information Commission et al.

SC 18772
June 29, 2009
State Court
Connecticut
Supreme Court of Connecticut

On February 27, 2012, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the University of Connecticut’s donor list is a trade secret and not subject to easy access through a Freedom of Information request. The court reasoned that UCONN spends resources to acquire the information and that other institutions could use that information to lure away dollars and loyalty from those on the list.

In 2009, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) had received a complaint alleging that the University of Connecticut (UConn) improperly refused a request for disclosure of the names and addresses of (1) purchasers of tickets to the school's athletic events held by the University Athletics Department and to performing arts events at the Jorgensen Auditorium, (2) persons who made inquiries about programs at the Center for Continuing Studies, and (3) donors to the University Libraries Division. UConn claimed that the requested records were "customer lists" that were exempt from the disclosure requirements of the freedom of information act as trade secrets.

The FOIC ordered the records disclosed, finding that a public entity such as UConn cannot maintain its own protected trade secrets because UConn is largely subsidized by public funds and is not engaged in a trade or business dependent on earned income for its continued existence. On appeal, the trial court found that nothing in the statute suggests that a public agency cannot maintain trade secrets, noting that the university competed with other institutions that operate performing arts, sporting events, and educational programs for a profit, and that compiling these lists had cost UConn much time and effort.

Although the trial court found that the list of donors to the University Libraries Division does not constitute a customer list under the trade secrets exemption because donors are not purchasing goods or services, the court remanded the matter to the FOIC for findings as to whether the records qualify as another type of "information" protected as a trade secret and as to whether the records do not qualify for exemption because they are readily ascertainable from other sources. The FOIC appeals from the decision to the Supreme Court.

In oral arguments to the Supreme Court, the appellant (Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission, represented by its attorney Clifton Leonhardt) argued that it is conceivable that the University of Connecticut could hold trade secrets, even though the Commission's brief contended the public institution could not. The Commission argued two other factors should make the lists public: because general interest outweighs UConn's need for confidentiality, and because UConn never showed the records were unavailable elsewhere. Later, Leonhardt said in an interview that he does not believe the commission, in its final decision, definitively settled the question of whether UConn can maintain trade secrets. If the commission had found definitively against UConn, he said, such a finding would contradict state law authorizing UConn to create and own intellectual property and to enter into research contracts with private businesses.

On February 27, 2012, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the University of Connecticut’s donor list is a trade secret and not subject to easy access through a Freedom of Information request. The court reasoned that UCONN spends resources to acquire the information and that other institutions could use that information to lure away dollars and loyalty from those on the list.

Harper
University of Connecticut
Freedom of Information Commission, Jonathan Pelto
Other state statute

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