Vermont Supreme Court to Hear FOI Case about Professor’s Food Industry Group Documents

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Media Advisory

For Immediate Release: Thursday, September 10, 2020
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

What: The Vermont Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in U.S. Right to Know v. University of Vermont.  The case involves a request under the Vermont Public Records Act for email communications involving Dr. Naomi Fukagawa, an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Vermont. USRTK is interested in learning more about Fukagawa’s work as the editor-in-chief of Nutrition Reviews. The journal is published by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a group funded by the food and agrichemical industries.

When: Tuesday, September 15 at 2pm EDT. Video of the oral arguments will be livestreamed at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCx5naSorUsDA-rgrF1_SGkw

Why: U.S. Right to Know is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the food and agrichemical industries, their business practices and front groups. As a result of that investigation, U.S. Right to Know Executive Director Gary Ruskin has co-authored three academic studies about ILSI in the journals Public Health Nutrition, Globalization and Health and Critical Public Health.  The studies show that while ILSI claims to “improve the well-being of the general public,” in fact it acts on behalf of the food industry.

Background: USRTK has prepared a fact sheet about ILSI. Briefs in the case U.S. Right to Know v. University of Vermont are available here.

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Coca-Cola Front Group Tried to Obscure Coke’s Funding & Key Role, Study Says

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For Immediate Release: Monday, August 3rd 2020 at 11am EDT
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin +1 415 944 7350

Coca-Cola Front Group Tried to Obscure Coke’s Funding & Key Role, Study Says

 Coca-Cola Kept “Email Family” of Public Health Academic Allies

Coca-Cola Co. and academics at its front group Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) tried to obscure Coke’s central role and funding for the group, according to a new study published today in Public Health Nutrition. Coke and the academics tried to dilute the apparent size of Coke’s $1.5 million contribution as well as the company’s role in creating the GEBN. Coke also maintained an “email family” of public health academics whom Coke used to promote its interests.

The study was based on documents obtained via state public records requests by U.S. Right to Know, an investigative public health and consumer group. Coke created the GEBN to downplay the links between obesity and sugary drinks, as a part of its “war” with the public health community. GEBN went defunct in 2015.

“This is a story about how Coke used public health academics to carry out classic tobacco tactics to protect its profits,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know. “It’s a low point in the history of public health, and a warning about the perils of accepting corporate funding for public health work.”

Regarding Coke’s funding, John Peters, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, stated: “We are certainly going to have to disclose this [Coca-Cola funding] at some point. Our preference would be to have other funders on board first…Right now, we have two funders. Coca Cola and an anonymous individual donor….Jim [Hill] and Steve [Blair], does including the Universities as funders/supporters pass the red face test?”

In another email, John Peters explains, “We are managing some GEBN inquiries and while we disclose Coke as a sponsor we don’t want to disclose how much they gave.”

The paper also provides evidence of Coke’s leadership of a tight-knit group of public health academics who issued research and public relations messaging supportive of Coke. Rhona Applebaum, then-VP and chief science and health officer at Coke, used the term “email family” to describe the network. The paper states that, “Coca-Cola supported a network of academics, as an ‘email family’ that promoted messages associated with its public relations strategy, and sought to support those academics in advancing their careers and building their affiliated public health and medical institutions.”

“Coke’s ‘email family’ is just the latest example of the appalling commercialization of the university and public health work,” Ruskin said. “Public health academics in an email family with Coke is like criminologists in an email family with Al Capone.”

Today’s study in Public Health Nutrition is titled “Evaluating Coca-Cola’s attempts to influence public health ‘in their own words’: analysis of Coca-Cola emails with public health academics leading the Global Energy Balance Network.” It was co-authored by Paulo Serôdio, research fellow at the University of Barcelona; Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know; Martin McKee, professor of European public health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; and David Stuckler, professor at Bocconi University.

The co-authors of today’s study also wrote a study about Coke and GEBN for the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health titled “Science organisations and Coca-Cola’s ‘war’ with the public health community: insights from an internal industry document.”

Documents from this study are available at the UCSF Food Industry Documents Archive, in the U.S. Right to Know Food Industry Collection, at https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/food/collections/usrtk-food-industry-collection/.

For more information about U.S. Right to Know, see our academic papers at https://usrtk.org/academic-work/. For more general information, see usrtk.org.

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The Dicamba Papers: Key Documents and Analysis

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Dozens of farmers around the United States are suing the former Monsanto Co., purchased in 2018 by Bayer AG, and conglomerate BASF in an effort to hold the companies accountable for millions of acres of crop damage the farmers claim is due to widespread illegal use of the weed killing chemical dicamba, use  promoted by the companies.

The first case to go to trial pitted Missouri’s Bader Farms against the companies and resulted in a $265 million verdict against the companies. The jury awarded $15 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages.

The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Southeastern Division, Civil Docket #1:16-cv-00299-SNLJ. The owners of Bader Farms alleged the companies conspired to create an “ecological disaster” that would induce farmers to buy dicamba-tolerant seeds. Key documents from that case can be found below.

The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) plans to investigate the agency’s approvals of new dicamba herbicides to determine whether the EPA adhered to federal requirements and “scientifically sound principles” when it registered the new dicamba herbicides.

FEDERAL ACTION

Separately, on June 3, 2020. the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the Environmental Protection Agency had violated the law in approving dicamba herbicides make by Bayer, BASF and Corteva Agrisciences and overturned the agency’s approval of the popular dicamba-based herbicides made by the three chemical giants. The ruling made it illegal for farmers to continue to use the product.

But the EPA flouted the court ruling, issuing a notice on June 8 that said growers could continue to use the companies’ dicamba herbicides until July 31, despite the fact that the court specifically said in its order that it wanted no delay in vacating those approvals. The court cited damage done by dicamba use in past summers to millions of acres of crops, orchards and vegetable plots across U.S. farm country.

On June 11, 2020, the petitioners in the case filed an emergency motion seeking to enforce the court order and to hold the EPA in contempt. Several farm associations have joined with Corteva, Bayer and BASF in asking the court not to immediately enforce the ban. Documents are found below.

BACKGROUND: Dicamba has been used by farmers since the 1960s but with limits that took into account the chemical’s propensity to drift and volatilize- moving far from where it was sprayed. When Monsanto’s popular glyphosate weed killing products, such as Roundup, started losing effectiveness due to widespread weed resistance, Monsanto decided to launch a dicamba cropping system similar to its popular Roundup Ready system, which paired glyphosate-tolerant seeds with glyphosate herbicides. Farmers buying the new genetically engineered dicamba-tolerant seeds could more easily treat stubborn weeds by spraying  entire fields with dicamba, even during warm growing months, without harming their crops. Monsanto announced a collaboration with BASF in 2011. The companies said their new dicamba herbicides would be less volatile and less prone to drift than old formulations of dicamba.

The Environmental Protection Agency approved the use of Monsanto’s dicamba herbicide “XtendiMax” in 2016. BASF developed its own dicamba herbicide that it calls Engenia. Both XtendiMax and Engenia were first sold in the United States in 2017.

Monsanto started selling its dicamba-tolerant seeds in 2016, and a key claim by the plaintiffs is that selling the seeds before regulatory approval of the new dicamba herbicides encouraged farmers to spray fields with old, highly volatile dicamba formulations. The Bader lawsuit claims: “The cause of such destruction to Plaintiff Bader Farms’ crops is Defendant Monsanto’s willful and negligent release of a defective crop system – namely its genetically modified Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans and Bollgard II Xtend cotton seeds (“Xtend crops”) – without an accompanying, EPA-approved dicamba herbicide.”

Farmers claim that the companies knew and expected that the new seeds would spur such widespread use of dicamba that drift would damage the fields of farmers who did not buy the genetically engineered dicamba-tolerant seeds. The farmers allege this was part of a scheme to expand sales of the genetically engineered dicamba-tolerant seeds. Many allege the new dicamba formulations sold by the companies also drift and cause crop damage just as the old versions have done.

For more information about dicamba, please see our dicamba fact sheet.

ILSI is a Food Industry Front Group, New Study Suggests

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Sunday, May 17th 2020 at 8pm EDT
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin +1 415 944 7350

The influential global nonprofit group International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) says that its mission is to “improve the well-being of the general public,” but a study published today in Public Health Nutrition adds evidence that it is, in fact, a food industry front group.

The study, based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records requests, uncovered “a pattern of activity in which ILSI sought to exploit the credibility of scientists and academics to bolster industry positions and promote industry-devised content in its meetings, journal, and other activities.”

“ILSI is insidious because they say they work for health when really they defend the food industry and its profits,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know, a consumer and public health group. “Across the world, ILSI is central to the food industry’s product defense, to keep consumers buying the ultra-processed food, sugary beverages and other junk food that promotes obesity, type 2 diabetes and other ills.”

The study reveals how ILSI promotes the interests of the food and agrichemical industries, including:

  • ILSI’s role in defending controversial food ingredients and suppressing views that are unfavorable to industry;
  • that corporations such as Coca-Cola can earmark contributions to ILSI for specific programs; and,
  • how ILSI uses academics for their authority but allows industry hidden influence in their publications.

In the study, the co-authors “call for ILSI to be recognised as a private sector entity rather than an independent scientific non-profit.”

The study also reveals new details about which companies fund ILSI and its branches.  For example:

  • ILSI North America’s draft 2016 IRS form 990 shows a $317,827 contribution from PepsiCo, contributions greater than $200,000 from Mars, Coca-Cola and Mondelez, and contributions greater than $100,000 from General Mills, Nestle, Kellogg, Hershey, Kraft, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Starbucks Coffee, Cargill, Unilever and Campbell Soup.
  • ILSI’s draft 2013 Internal Revenue Service form 990 shows that it received $337,000 from Coca-Cola, and more than $100,000 each from Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer Crop Science and BASF.
  • In 2012, ILSI received $528,500 in contributions from CropLife International, a $500,000 contribution from Monsanto, and $163,500 from Coca-Cola.

Recently, there has been a wave of investigative work on ILSI and its worldwide influence. Last January, two papers by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh, in the BMJ and the Journal of Public Health Policy, revealed ILSI’s influence on the Chinese government regarding issues related to obesity. Last June, the co-authors of today’s study released a previous study on ILSI in the journal Globalization and Health. Last September, the New York Times published an article about ILSI, titled A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World. In April, the nonprofit Corporate Accountability released a report on ILSI titled “Partnership for an Unhealthy Planet.”

ILSI is incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, based in Washington DC.  It was founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president of Coca-Cola. It has 17 branches located all over the world.

The title of the study in Public Health Nutrition is “Pushing partnerships: corporate influence on research and policy via the International Life Sciences Institute.” It was co-authored by Sarah Steele, senior research associate at Jesus College and the University of Cambridge; Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know; and, David Stuckler, professor at Bocconi University.

The documents from the study are also available in the Food Industry Documents Archive of the UCSF Industry Documents Library, in the USRTK Food Industry Collection, as well as the Chemical Industry Documents Archive, in the USRTK Agrichemical Collection.

For more information about ILSI, see the U.S. Right to Know fact sheet about it.  For more information about U.S. Right to Know, see our academic papers at https://usrtk.org/academic-work/. For more general information, see usrtk.org.

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Coke PR Campaigns Tried to Influence Teens’ Views on Health Impacts of Soda

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, December 18, 2019
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin, +1 415 944-7350

Internal Coca-Cola Company documents show how the company intended to use public relations campaigns to influence teens’ sense of the health risks of its products, including sugary soda, according to a study published today in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

One Coca-Cola document shows that its public relations campaign goals included to “Increase Coke brand health scores with teens” and to “Cement credibility in the health and well-being space.”

The study was produced by Australia’s Deakin University and U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer and public health group.  It is based on two Coca-Cola Company public relations requests for proposals, for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games and for its Movement Is Happiness campaign. U.S. Right to Know obtained the documents through state public records requests.

“The documents show that Coca-Cola tried to use public relations to manipulate teens into thinking that sugary soda is healthy, when really it increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and other ills,” said Gary Ruskin, a co-author of the study, and co-director of U.S Right to Know. “Tobacco companies shouldn’t tell teens what is or is not healthy, and neither should Coca-Cola.”

“We are calling for governments and public health agencies to investigate how Coca-Cola uses public relations to manipulate children and teenagers in ways that may harm their health,” Ruskin said.

The study concludes that, “Coke’s intent and ability to use PR campaigns to market to children should cause serious public-health concern, given that the exposure of children to the marketing of unhealthy foods is likely to be an important contributor to increased childhood obesity rates.”

“Globally, Coke makes public pledges to reduce the exposure of children to marketing of unhealthy products. But what they say in public is at odds with their internal documents that show how they deliberately set out to target children as part of their promotion efforts”, said co-author of the study, Associate Professor Gary Sacks from Deakin University.

The study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health was co-authored by Benjamin Wood, a doctoral student at Deakin University; Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, and Deakin University Associate Professor Gary Sacks.

The key documents from the study are also available in the Food Industry Documents Archive of the UCSF Industry Documents Library, in the USRTK Food Industry Collection.

For more information about U.S. Right to Know, see our academic papers at https://usrtk.org/academic-work/. For more general information, see usrtk.org.

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Groups to CDC: Stop Falsely Claiming Not to Accept Corporate Money

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Tuesday, November 5, 2019
Contact: Gary Ruskin, U.S. Right to Know, gary@usrtk.org, (415) 944-7350
Angela Bradbery, Public Citizen, abradbery@citizen.org, (202) 588-7741

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public health, government watchdog and public interest groups today petitioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to cease making false disclaimers that it “does not accept commercial support” and has “no financial interests or other relationships with the manufacturers of commercial products.”

The CDC makes such disclaimers hundreds of times in its publications and on its website, despite that the National Foundation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has accepted for it nearly $80 million from drug companies and other commercial manufacturers during fiscal years 2014-2018.

The petition states: “These claims may be comforting to consumers and health professionals, but both are indisputably false.” Groups endorsing the petition include Knowledge Ecology International, Liberty Coalition, Project on Government Oversight, Public Citizen and U.S. Right to Know.

“It’s time for the CDC to be truthful with health professionals and all Americans, and to stop denying that it takes corporate money,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “The CDC is violating the public trust by misleading us in this way.”

“That the CDC accepts millions from corporations directly impacted by the agency’s public health programs is indefensible,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “So the CDC instead has adopted the strategy of repeatedly denying that it accepts such payments.”

“The CDC needs the trust of the public, on the efficacy and safety of vaccines and drugs, and measures to prevent disease and injury,” said James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International. “A small amount of money from corporations diminishes the trust the public will have that the agency works for us, and provides independent, trusted information.”

In January, Ruskin co-authored a study in the Milbank Quarterly on emails between The Coca-Cola Company and the CDC, showing the company’s efforts to influence the CDC for its own benefit. One high-ranking CDC official even guided Coca-Cola on how to lobby the World Health Organization to back off its efforts to curtail added sugars. Coca-Cola has been a donor to the CDC Foundation.

In 2017, U.S. Right to Know obtained documents showing an alliance between Coca-Cola and then-CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald. These documents were the subject of articles in The New York Times and The Intercept.

The groups’ petition to the CDC is available here.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit consumer and public health group that investigates industry practices and influence on public policy. For more information, see usrtk.org.

Founded in 1971, Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power. For more information, see citizen.org.

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ILSI is a Food Industry Lobby Group, Not a Public Health Group, Study Finds

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Sunday, June 2nd, 2019 at 8pm EDT
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin +1 415 944-7350 or Sarah Steele +44 7768653130

The nonprofit International Life Science Institute claims to conduct “science for the public good” that “improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment,” but really is a food industry lobby group, according to a study published today in the journal Globalization and Health. 

The study provides examples of how ILSI advances the interests of the food industry, especially by promoting industry-friendly science and arguments to policymakers. The study is based on documents obtained via state freedom of information requests by U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on the food industry.  

The study’s authors conclude that, “ILSI should be regarded as a lobby group and that academics and researchers, policy makers, the media, and the public should view ILSI’s research as promoting the interests of the food, beverage, supplement and agrichemical industries” and that its actions “counter healthy public policies.”

“ILSI is Big Food’s global stealth network to defeat scientists, regulators and others who point out the health risks of their products,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “Big Food wants you to believe that ILSI works for your health, but really it defends food industry profits.”

The Globalization and Health paper was co-authored by Sarah Steele, senior research associate at Jesus College and the University of Cambridge; Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know; Lejla Sarcevic, Intellectual Forum senior research associate at Jesus College, Cambridge; Martin McKee, professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; and, David Stuckler, professor at Bocconi University.

In January, two papers by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh, in the BMJ and the Journal of Public Health Policy, revealed ILSI’s powerful influence on the Chinese government regarding issues related to obesity.

ILSI is incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, based in Washington DC.  It was founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president of Coca-Cola. It has 17 branches located all over the world.

As an example of how ILSI keeps in close alignment with Coca-Cola and the soda industry, the paper quotes an email from Malaspina in which he laments ILSI Mexico’s failure to follow the industry position on soda taxes. Malaspina describes “the mess ILSI Mexico is in because they sponsored in September a sweeteners conference when the subject of soft drinks taxation was discussed. ILSI is now suspending ILSI Mexico, until they correct their ways. A real mess.”

“Our findings only continue to add to the evidence that this non-profit organisation has been used by its corporate backers for years to counter public health policies. We contend that the International Life Sciences Institute should be regarded as an industry group – a private body – and regulated as such, not as a body acting for the greater good,” said the study lead author Dr. Sarah Steele, a researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies.

Documents from the ILSI study will be posted in University of California, San Francisco’s Food Industry Documents Archive, in the U.S. Right to Know Food Industry Collection.

For more information about U.S. Right to Know, see our academic papers at https://usrtk.org/academic-work/. For more general information, see usrtk.org.  

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Coca-Cola Can Bury Adverse Findings from Health Research It Funds, Study Says

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News Release

For immediate release: Tuesday, May 7th at 7:30pm EDT
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Coca-Cola’s research contracts show that it had extensive influence over the public health research it funds, including the power to “prevent publication of unfavourable research” in some cases, according to a new study published today in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

According to the study, public health research contract provisions gave Coca-Cola “the power to terminate studies early and without giving reasons” as well as “the right to review research in advance of publication as well as control over (1) study data, (2) disclosure of results and (3) acknowledgement of Coca-Cola funding. Some agreements specified that Coca-Cola has the ultimate decision about any publication of peer reviewed papers prior to its approval of the researchers’ final report “

“These contracts suggest that Coke wanted the power to bury research it funded that might detract from its image or profits,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know.  “With the power to trumpet positive findings and bury negative ones, Coke-funded ‘science’ seems somewhat less than science and more like an exercise in public relations.”

The study is based on Coca-Cola research contacts obtained via Freedom of Information requests by U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer and public health research group.  From 2015 through 2018, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) filed 129 FOI requests in the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and Denmark, seeking documents about Coca-Cola or allied groups, or other aspects of the food industry.  These FOI requests turned up 87,013 pages, including five agreements for Coca-Cola funded research, which were then analyzed.

The Journal of Public Health Policy paper was co-authored by Sarah Steele, senior research associate at the University of Cambridge; Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know; Martin McKee, professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; and, David Stuckler, professor at Bocconi University.

Coca-Cola’s research contracts are typical of other corporate funding contracts for public health research. Given corporate influence over corporate-funded public health research, and the inadequacy of standard conflict of interest statements to describe this influence, the study’s authors “recommend journals supplement funding disclosures and conflict-of-interest statements by requiring authors to attach funder agreements.”

The study raises particular concerns about the prospect of early termination of corporate-funded public health research, and the impact such termination may have on knowledge of the public health effects of corporate products or practices. The authors recommend that “Where studies are terminated without having been registered in advance, as should be the case with clinical trials, it may be that termination acts as suppression of critical health information. We therefore call for industry funders to publish complete lists of terminated studies as part of their commitment to act with integrity, and for clear declarations of involvement as standard publication practice.” 

“We are already hearing accusations from experts in nutrition that the food industry is copying tactics from big tobacco’s playbook,” said Sarah Steele, the lead author of the study. “Corporate social responsibility has to be more than just shiny websites stating progressive policies that get ignored.” 

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit consumer and public health group that investigates food industry practices and influence on public policy.  For our academic papers, see https://usrtk.org/academic-work/. For more general information, see usrtk.org.  

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Don’t weaken the California Public Records Act

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Update: On May 2nd, Assemblymember Laura Friedman announced that she will not advance the legislation to the Assembly floor in 2019.

U.S. Right to Know opposes AB 700, legislation to weaken the California Public Records Act (CPRA). The legislation, sponsored by California Assemblymember Laura Friedman, would exempt much of the work product of California’s public universities from the CPRA. The CPRA is a crucial tool for journalists and citizens, as well as public interest, consumer, environmental, public health and good government advocates in California and across the country to expose corruption, wrongdoing and abuse of power.  We oppose efforts to weaken it, and are concerned that any successful effort to do so could invite others, leading to a slippery slope that could diminish this law in unforeseen ways, at cost to our health, our environment and our democracy.

At California’s public universities, the CPRA is central to efforts to unearth research misconduct and fraud, sexual harassment scandals, financial improprieties and misallocation of funds, government waste, corporate influence in research process, the commercialization of the university, the influence of wealthy donors, and administrative cover-ups of all of the above.  If enacted, this legislation will shield such scandals from exposure and accountability, and invite more.  

The following organizations are opposing AB700. See letters of opposition by:

Articles about AB 700:

California Assembly Committee on Judiciary report on AB 700.