Wilson v. Freedom of Information Commission was a case before the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1980 concerning the deliberative process exemption.
This case established a number of important precedents:
- The exemption for preliminary drafts found at Conn. Gen. Stat. Chapter 14, Sec. 1-210.(b)(1) was put in place to "protect the free and candid exchange of ideas, the uninhibited proposition and criticism of options."
- Advisory committees, which have no authoritative power over policy decisions are inherently predecisional in nature and thus exempt from the public records act.
- In February of 1975, Wilson, the President of Academic Affairs at the University of Connecticut, established a 7 member committee entitled the Program Review Committee (PRC).
- The PRC was composed of the deans of the two major schools and four faculty members, two of whom served on the faculty Senate's budget and executive committees. The PRC was tasked with evaluating the various academic departments and advising Wilson on how to improve efficiency within those departments.
- On September 14, 1976, Finch, the student government president, requested all documents submitted to Wilson from the PRC. Wilson denied the request, and Finch appealed to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC).
- The Commission ruled in favor of Finch without reviewing the documents.
- Wilson appealed the decision and the Court of Common Pleas, claiming that the documents were exempt under exemptions for preliminary drafts, personal information and collective bargaining strategies.
- The Court of common pleas overturned the decision of the commission and remanded the case for an in camera inspection of the documents.
- Both sides appealed the decision. The University claimed that the trial court erred in determining that the documents were not exempt as "preliminary drafts." The FOIC claimed that the court erred in ruling the documents exempt under privacy exemptions.
Ruling of the court
The trial court overturned the decision of the FOIC, determining that a number of the documents were exempt because they contained personal information and collective bargaining information.
The Supreme Court began by establishing that the court must balance the privacy needs of the governmental officials against the public's need for transparency. However, before moving to the balancing test, the court first rejected the FOIC and the trial courts arguments that the documents were not preliminary drafts because they were final and "not subject to alteration." The court instead felt that the separation between preliminary and final drafts did not center on the likelihood of altering those documents in the future. Instead, the court determined that preliminary drafts are those documents that "[relate] to advisory opinions, recommendations and deliberations comprising part of the process by which government decisions and policies are formulated." Thus, preliminary drafts are all documents which are generated as a part of the process of decision-making, before a final decision has been arrived at. The court felt that this definition captured the legislators' intention, namely, to "protect the free and candid exchange of ideas, the uninhibited proposition and criticism of options." The court went on to establish that because the PRC was an advisory board, which made no authoritative policy decisions, it was inherently predecisional in nature and thus fell squarely within the exemption carved out by the legislature. Finally, the court established that the public interest in non-disclosure in order to protect candid exchange and prevent the embarrassment of faculty and staff outweighed the public interest in disclosure. Based on these decisions, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the trial court, and ordered the documents exempt as predecisional material.