HARTFORD, Conn. ― The Connecticut Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a lower court judge to hold another hearing to determine whether the names of some University of Connecticut animal researchers can be kept secret to protect their safety.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is seeking the names and grant numbers of UConn researchers found to have violated the national Animal Welfare Act or National Institutes of Health guidelines for the use of animals in research.
The state’s Freedom of Information Commission had ordered the names be kept private, agreeing with the state Department of Administrative Services that the information was exempt from Connecticut’s FOI law.
The commission argued that releasing the names put the scientists at an unreasonable risk because animal rights activists have committed numerous incidents of violence, threatened violence and harassed researchers.
But Superior Court Judge Carl Schuman ordered the university to release the names, finding the commission used the wrong standard in applying the “safety” exemption. He said there was no evidence showing that researchers who did not comply with federal research protocols were at a greater safety risk than other animal researchers. He also found that no threats had been made against the UConn scientists.
The high court Wednesday overturned the judge, ruling that the standard applied by the FOI commission was correct. It also ordered a new hearing to determine whether the terms of the standard had been met so that the names can be kept private.
“Because the trial court concluded that the commission had applied an improper standard, the court had no reason to address that issue,” Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the high court. “Accordingly, we conclude that the case should be remanded to the trial court so that it may determine whether the commission properly concluded that the department’s determination that disclosure of the redacted information would create a safety risk was not frivolous or patently unfounded and was arrived at in good faith.”
PETA director Justin Goodman, a UConn alumnus, said the public has the right to know who conducted the experiments and his group will continue to fight to have the names released.
“The court’s decision is outrageous in light of the state’s admissions that it had no evidence, only rife speculation and conjecture, that disclosing the records poses any risk,” he said in a statement.
Chris Hyers, a spokesman for UConn Health, said the school will continue to fight to keep the names from PETA.
“Today’s ruling sets direction for where and how this case will continue. It does not change our position that the FOIA safety risk exemption rule applies in this case and we will continue to defend that belief within the parameters established by the court,” he said in a statement.
It is not clear when a new hearing will be scheduled.