The lawsuit over the University of Missouri’s Sunshine Law practices being tried in Boone County Circuit Court began when the Beagle Freedom Project heard individual supporters of its work were being charged far more than the $50 the organization estimated for research animal records, a witness said Tuesday.
Jeremy Beckham, who ran the Identity Campaign for the Beagle Freedom Project, said the organization decided to request records for all dogs and cats used in MU research. In response, the university sent a cost estimate of more than $82,000. The organization sued the university and records custodian Paula Barrett in 2016, alleging that the high cost discouraged access to the records.
Beckham was Tuesday’s primary witness in the trial, which is expected to conclude Wednesday. He said the organization first obtained a census of the research animals at 14 institutions, including MU. Supporters were urged to request records from the universities. The university’s demand was by far the costliest, he said.
“It did vary a little bit from institution to institution,” Beckham said. “Some were very accommodating and provided the documents at no cost.”
Circuit Judge Jeff Harris is presiding over the trial but he is not expected to rule until after final briefs are filed in August.
Texas A&M University simply refused to provide any of the records requested, Beckham said.
Beagle Freedom Project supporters submitting record requests to the University of Missouri instead were faced with cost estimates in the hundreds of dollars.
“I don’t think anyone got records” from MU, Beckham said.
Several supporters were agitated with the university, he said.
“There definitely was a level of obstruction at the University of Missouri that I hadn’t anticipated,” he said.
The organizations request included photos and videos of research animals.
“It’s somewhat rare, but not unheard of” for universities to have photos and videos of research animals, Beckham said. “When a research institution has photos and videos, those are records that are fought over tenaciously. It often leads to litigation.”
Beckham said the records could provide a biography of the animal, which was a goal of the Identity Campaign.
“The best way for people to develop empathy is to learn stories of individuals,” he said. He said it works both for humans and animals.
The supporters who paid $50 for a record-request kit received a dog tag with animal’s basic information and could virtually adopt the animal, in that the supporter was serving as its advocate. The campaign served several purposes, including fundraising, Beckham said.
“Pretty often when you start to get records you discover problems,” Beckham said. “It could be instrumental in bringing some accountability to these testing laboratories.”
Dan Kolde, an attorney for Beagle Freedom Project said in his opening statement said the cost estimate Barret presented include work by some of the highest-paid professors at the university, including one who would require 378 hours to fill the request.
“They were trying to do a backdoor closure of records” by placing a high cost estimate on them, Kolde said.
Kolde said the evidence would show 15 violations of the Sunshine Law. It is seeking a $1,000 fine for each knowing violation or a $5,000 fine for each purposeful violation of the law, attorneys fees and the records requested at no cost.
University attorney Paul Magufee said evidence would prove that the university didn’t violate the law, but sought only to recoup its costs. He said the scope of the Beagle Freedom Project’s request was “voluminous.”
“The university has no design to keep records from the public, to hide them or shield them from the Sunshine Law,” Magufee said.