SUNY claims foundation donor names are ‘trade secrets’

SUNY claims foundation donor names are ‘trade secrets’

In response to a Freedom of Information Law request from The Alt, the state university system claimed that “the names of donors or potential donors” of a foundation it controls constitute “trade secrets.”

In September, we requested certain emails related to the SUNY Impact Foundation, a new vehicle for soliciting private-sector funds to support the university, sent or received by Chancellor Kristina Johnson and Christine Fitzgibbons, the foundation’s executive director.

The university provided 38 pages of emails in early November, noting that “certain records have been redacted, or not produced at all” based on four exemptions to state law. SUNY did not unredact or release any additional records in response to our subsequent administrative appeal of the determination.

It is unclear if donor names were redacted in the emails we received, or if the names appeared in records that were not produced at all.

SUNY also did not say if these donors are people or other entities, like corporations—a potentially significant distinction. The state Committee on Open Government, which oversees FOIL, has opined that donors’ names can be withheld to protect personal privacy, but only if they are “natural persons.” (The university also asserted the privacy exemption in response to our FOIL, but did not specify the information to which it applied.) 

“The rationale isn’t clear to me,” Kristin O’Neill, COG’s assistant director, said of the university’s trade-secrets claim at the time of the initial determination. On Thursday, O’Neill told The Alt that, in her opinion, SUNY’s appeal determination does not “fully explain” the reasons for further denial, as required by law.

A university spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

The FOIL statute says that government agencies can withhold records that “are trade secrets…and which if disclosed would cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise.” The trade-secrets exemption is more commonly invoked by agencies when records contain proprietary information from the private sector, though courts have held that governmental agencies can assert it in certain circumstances.

This is not the first time SUNY has deployed the exemption in response to a FOIL request from The Alt. In August, the university withheld a series of staff training videos on the same grounds, arguing that because SUNY “operates in a highly competitive environment,” disclosure of videos “concerning its risk management and internal control strategies could only assist its competition and adversely impact the university.”

Read the initial response, the appeal, and the appeal denial below.


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