HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The University of Connecticut is fighting in court to prevent the release of lists naming its supporters, arguing they amount to trade secrets that other institutions could use to lure away Huskies fans’ dollars and loyalties.
Open-records experts say it’s the first time Connecticut’s courts will have to decide whether public entities, not just businesses, can invoke a trade-secret exemption to keep information private — even if it was created at public expense.
Depending on the appeals court’s ruling, the case could also make public thousands of names of UConn boosters: season ticket holders to athletics and cultural events, nonstudents who’ve inquired about continuing studies programs and donors to the library system.
UConn says that is proprietary information just like business customer lists, and that professional sports teams, theater organizations, casino operators and other competitors might use it to chase those UConn supporters’ discretionary dollars.
The state’s Freedom of Information Commission disagreed and ordered UConn in 2009 to release the records, but a state Supreme Court judge overturned that decision last year. It’s now pending before the state’s Appellate Court.
“If public entities can have trade secrets, then don’t the trade secrets belong to the public?” said UConn alumnus and former state representative Jonathan Pelto, who first requested the information. “Connecticut has one of the best Freedom of Information acts in the country, but there are gray areas and this, as far as UConn is concerned, is a gray area.”
A university spokesman said UConn would not comment because it does not speak publicly about pending litigation.
Connecticut’s FOI law presumes all government information is public unless it meets certain exemptions, including company trade secrets that are in a public agency’s hands because of bidding, contracting or other circumstances.
Pelto requested the UConn information in 2008, hoping to reach more people for the Friends of UConn advocacy and watchdog group. The FOI Commission ruled the names of people who donated through the UConn Foundation can be withheld because it is a private, legally separate entity not governed by the FOI provisions.
“When you think of trade secrets, you typically think of an entity that is engaged in trade, and for a public university, that’s not the first thing you think of,” FOI Commission Executive Director Colleen Murphy said. “Here you have a public university that generates a lot of revenue, including from people who are on some of these lists. Unless there’s a specific provision that says information shouldn’t be disclosed, the general rule would be disclosure.”
The state General Assembly has passed laws over the years to make certain kinds of information private, including names of children in municipal recreation programs, participants in local senior center activities and home addresses of judges, prison guards and police officers. It has never dealt with the question of university event season ticket holders.
Although Connecticut has not dealt with the issue, it’s not entirely new.
In New Jersey, the state’s Government Records Council ruled in 2008 in favor of Rutgers University, which cited trade secrets and individuals’ privacy rights when it denied a request for the names of season ticket holders to Scarlet Knights football and men’s basketball. That requester wanted to study whether certain neighborhoods had higher concentrations of season ticket holders as residents than other areas.
The records oversight agency did not address the trade secrets issue when it sided with Rutgers, though. Its decision rested on a New Jersey standard for balancing a citizen’s need for information against a public entity’s obligation to ensure a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Connecticut’s open-records law also does not provide a blanket exemption to claim privacy as a reason to reject a request for records.