Sunday, May 31, 2009, 5/31/2009 11:51:00 AM

University Mailing Lists – Public Records or Trade Secrets?

An interesting article – about an interesting conundrum – from The Day in New London, Connecticut: are university donors’ lists public records and therefore subject to disclosure to companies in the mailing list business?

As a public policy matter, the answer seems easy. Most not-for-profits jealously guard their donors’ lists. Put another way, Charity A hardly wants Charity B to start soliciting Charity A’s donors who might diminish their contributions to Charity A in favor of Charity B. In a worst case scenario, donors to Charity A might not give at all if they knew their names and addresses would be shared with others.

The problem, of course, is that the charity’s interest might conflict with public records law if the charity in question is, say, a state university. Public records hardliners contend that every scrap of information about public institutions belongs to the public, all other considerations be damned.

Now the University of Connecticut finds itself on the horns of that dilemma.

According to David Collins’s column in The Day a recent decision by the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission ordered the university to make public a number of its lists, which included “everything from a list of sporting event season ticket holders and a list of Jorgenson Auditorium subscribers to the names of donors to the school's library.”
The commission’s ruling comes after a complaint from Jonathan Pelto, “a former state legislator who now runs a public relations company that, among other things, develops and sells mailing lists.”
According to Collins, the commission rejected most of the exemption claims raised by the school, including the assertion that lists like the one for Jorgenson Auditorium should be protected from disclosure under statutes that shield “customer lists” and other trade secrets.
The ruling is expected to be stayed while the matter is appealed to Connecticut Superior Court.


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