The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a trial judge used the wrong legal standard when he ordered the University of Connecticut to give an animal-rights group the names of researchers who had violated animal-research protocols. The university withheld the names to protect the researchers from potential abuse by animal-rights activists.
But the victory for UConn may be temporary: The case was remanded to the Superior Court for further review to determine if the state’s determination of a safety risk to the researchers “was not frivolous or patently unfounded and was arrived at in good faith.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals submitted a freedom of information request in 2012 to the UConn Health Center for all correspondence between the center and the National Institutes of Health concerning potential noncompliance with federal animal welfare guidelines from Jan. 1, 2009, through until Oct. 18, 2012.
UConn provided 61 pages of records redacted to conceal names of employees involved in animal research and federal grant numbers that could be used to identify the researchers. PETA complained to the FOI Commission that the redactions were improper.
The commission sided with UConn, but PETA appealed to the Superior Court, where a judge found no grounds for the redactions.
In an opinion by Justice Richard N. Palmer, the Supreme Court noted that state law allows public records to be redacted if there is a determination of ‘‘reasonable grounds to believe disclosure may result in a safety risk,” not evidence of a specific threat. But Palmer said the trial court did not not use the correct standard to explore whether UConn could show the redactions were not frivolous.
The court indicated that the Department of Administrative Services, which conducted the risk assessment, may have wide latitude: State law does not require “a clear safety risk to justify nondisclosure or that the safety risk must outweigh the public interest in disclosure.”