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Tribunal rules in favour of UK University in FOI case

21 April 2010

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Category: Policy Issues

freedom–of–information.jpgA Freedom of Information (FOI) request made nearly three years ago has reached its conclusion, at least for now, with a ruling by the Information Tribunal. The Tribunal judge upheld a previous ruling by the Information Commissioner against the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who made the request.

The original request was for information relating to a single macaque ‘Felix' featured in a 2006 BBC documentary. PETA asked for the specifics of the project Felix was used for, and the objectives of the work. Oxford University confirmed that it held the requested information and answered some of the questions in the request. However PETA was not satisfied that they disclosed all possible information, and therefore complained first to the University, and then to the Information Commissioner.

The Information Commissioner carried out an investigation and identified further information that the University should disclose, but deemed that the rest was exempt from disclosure. The Commissioner concluded that the information withheld was exempted under section 38 of the Act, for information likely to endanger the health and safety of individuals. He also ruled that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosing the information.

PETA was not satisfied with this decision and appealed again. The case therefore passed to the Tribunal service. In evidence to the Tribunal judge, the University acknowledged that being transparent was good for science and that ‘if there was no special extreme threat here, the exposition of this information would be for the good'.

The Tribunal Judge upheld the previous ruling by the Commissioner, and agreed that the exemption was correctly applied. They also agreed that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosure.

Whilst PETA may choose to appeal against this decision, it can only do so with permission from the Information Tribunal. As the tribunal judge was very definite in her decision in this case, it is unlikely that such an appeal would be successful.

We are pleased that universities recognise the benefits of being more open. However, even with the continued decline in animal rights extremism, there are still times when there is arguably a specific threat related to the release of certain information. We strongly support the rights of universities not to put individuals at risk.

Links to the rulings:

IC ruling: PETA vs University of Oxford
Case Ref: FS50194251
http://www.ico.gov.uk/

Tribunal decision: PETA vs IC (Additional Party The University Of Oxford)
EA/2009/0076
http://www.informationtribunal.gov.uk/Public/search.aspx

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