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District Court Rules That Outdated Documents Are Not ‘Trade Secrets’ Under FOIA

Following U.S. Supreme Court Reversal, District Court Says That Material Requested Under FOIA Must Be Released

WASHINGTON - The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cannot block an airplane
enthusiast’s request for the design specifications of an antique
aircraft because the information is neither secret nor commercially
valuable, a Washington, D.C., district court has ruled.

 Airplane enthusiast Brent Taylor filed a request under the Freedom
of Information Act (FOIA) in August 2002 for records relating to a
1930s-era antique aircraft, the Fairchild F-45. After receiving no
response from the agency, Taylor filed a complaint in the United States
District Court for the District of Columbia. The district court
dismissed the case, concluding that Taylor had been “virtually
represented” by the plaintiff in a previous FOIA case over the same
documents. Taylor’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,
which, rejecting the theory of “virtual representation,” reversed the
lower courts.

  Back at the district court, the FAA claimed the requested
information should not be disclosed to Taylor because it contained trade
secrets. However, in 1955, the Fairchild Engine and Airplane
Corporation, the makers of the aircraft in question, sent a letter to
the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), the predecessor to the FAA,
authorizing the agency to “loan” certification materials – which
included specific design information – to members of the public who
wanted to repair their aircraft. Fairchild revoked the permission in
response to a similar FOIA request in 1997.

 The court ruled this week that when Fairchild in 1955 allowed the
CAA to release the documents to people who would have no obligation to
keep them secret, the documents stopped being secret. Therefore, the
information in the documents no longer qualifies as “trade secrets” that
can be withheld under FOIA, and the government is obligated to release
the documents. The court also ruled that the aircraft’s specifications
are not trade secrets because they are no longer commercially valuable,
as the technology is outdated and Fairchild no longer manufactures

 “We’re glad that the court recognized the limits on characterizing
records as trade secrets under FOIA,” said Adina Rosenbaum, the Public
Citizen attorney who represented Taylor. “The government should not be
withholding as trade secrets documents that are not commercially
valuable and that were allowed to be released for more than 40 years.”

 To learn more about this case, visit:


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