Judge: University of Missouri violated open records law

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A judge has found that the University of Missouri knowingly violated the state's open records law by overestimating the cost to provide records of dogs and cats used in research to an animal rights group.

Boone County Judge Jeff Harris sided Friday with Animal Rescue, Media & Education, also known as the Beagle Freedom Project, which was initially told it would cost $82,000 to get records for 179 animals used in university research. The group sued in 2016, alleging that the cost was so high that it effectively prevented the public from accessing information.

"Defendants' cost estimate was contrary to the dual objectives of liberal construction and lowest cost mandated by the Open Records Act," Harris wrote. "After hearing the evidence, the court finds that there is nothing so complex, unique or burdensome about the information sought that would require a requestor to pay in excess of $450 to just to get the records for a single dog or cat."

In his ruling, Harris ordered the university to pay a $1,000 fine and the attorneys' fees, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported. The ruling doesn't direct the university to provide the records to the group at a particular cost.

The university said in a statement that it was "committed to being transparent" and was considering its next steps.

"We respectfully disagree that the university violated those requirements," the school said.

Harris wrote that internal university communications showed the university was suspicious of the Beagle Freedom Project's objectives and confident that the high estimated cost would dissuade the organization from pursuing its request. Custodian of Records Paula Barrett wrote to Lon Dixon of the Office of Animal Resources to not spend any time retrieving records because "these animal rights groups often do not want to put out the money," Harris noted.

Harris wrote that the university based its estimate on veterinarians and other well-paid staffers responding to the request, which he said wasn't justified and increased costs unnecessarily.

The university admitted before the case went to trial this summer that less expensive staffers could provide a limited set of records for $8,950.

The Beagle Freedom Project launched a campaign in March 2015 that aimed to identify dogs and cats used in research. Labelled an "Identity Campaign," it intended to locate animals for potential adoption and raise public awareness about their use in research.

The project filed open records requests at multiple public universities. Harris wrote in his ruling that most responded to the requests, and some provided records at little or no cost.

"We have been saying this all along, that this number was unreasonable and designed to thwart Beagle Freedom Project's attempts to tell the public about the lives and fates of these animals," said Dan Kolde, a St. Louis attorney who worked on the case.