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Thursday, May 19, 2016

University of Missouri Socked with Lawsuit Over $82,222 Public Record Fee

Posted By on Thu, May 19, 2016 at 7:16 AM

There are currently 179 dogs and cats being used for research and testing at the University of Missouri. But when volunteers with the Beagle Freedom Project, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for animals, requested university records under the Sunshine Law about their care, they hit a wall — a very expensive wall.

The volunteers were told that fulfilling those requests would require from $400 to $700 apiece, says attorney Dan Kolde. That's even though the requests had been carefully formulated to ask for records the university was required to maintain for federal inspectors. The university still claimed they'd have to pay numerous staffers, at the cost of as much as $125/hour, just to compile them. The estimated cost ran as high as $7 a page.

And so the nonprofit itself submitted a request, asking for records on all 179 animals. The university responded by quoting a price of $82,222.

For Kolde, the Clayton-based attorney now representing the Beagle Freedom Project, the university's intent was clear: They wanted to use onerous fees to thwart the group from seeing the records.

And that, he says, violates the state's Sunshine law. He filed suit against the university in Boone County yesterday, asking a judge to rule in its favor and impose penalties, as well as pay his legal fees.

"If you look at the Missouri Sunshine Law, the Legislature anticipated that public entities would attempt to uses these kinds of costs to stop people from getting records," he says. "They require, for example, that you can only use the average salary of the lowest-cost employee who could fulfill the request" when calculating the cost of gathering records. 

That, suffice it to say, is not someone charging $125/hour.

According to the suit,
The University’s refusal to comply with the Missouri Sunshine law has effectively hindered BFP’s advocacy efforts, had a chilling effect on BFP’s efforts to engage in protected political speech, hampered BFP’s educational and advocacy efforts, allowed the University and its faculty and staff to shroud their activities in secrecy, and shielded itself form any semblance of citizen oversight of a public and taxpayer-funded institution.

The non-profit asked for a "fee waiver," which can be granted if the release of information is likely to benefit the public and won't be used for a commercial purpose. "The university said, 'We've decided it's not in our best interests,'" Kolde says. "Well, we're talking about the public's interest."

The Beagle Freedom Project opposes animal testing, Kolde says. But it also has a more practical focus. When dogs and cats' tenure in the lab finished, the group seeks to rehome them with loving families. In several states, they've even been able to get laws passed requiring rehoming instead of euthanasia.

"These research institutions are reluctant to adopt out these animals because they don't want people thinking about what happened to these dogs and cats before they came to their family," he alleges. 

He adds, "All we're trying to do is research some of these animals. ... But $12 billion in taxpayer money goes to these big institutions for this kind of research — and this is an attempt to dodge their responsibility to the public."

If the University of Missouri is found to have violated state Sunshine laws, they could face penalties of $1,000 to $5,000 per request. 

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