Student journalists take on corporate masses… and win

By Natalie Sit

Six years after the first cold beverage exclusivity deal was signed, the same agreement has achieved another first by being made public.

In 1995, the University of British Columbia and the students’ union of UBC, known as the Alma Mater Society, signed a 10-year deal with Coca-Cola Co., similar to the deal signed by the University of Calgary with PepsiCo Inc. It was the first time an exclusivity deal was signed on a Canadian campus. The agreement allowed Coca-Cola to supply all cold beverages excluding milk and beer and prohibited other beverage companies from advertising on the UBC campus.

In 1996 UBC’s student newspaper, the Ubyssey, launched a lawsuit against UBC, the AMS and Coca-Cola to make the contract public information. Though initially denied by the BC Freedom of Information commission, the Ubyssey appealed to the BC Supreme Court which overturned the decision and returned the case to the Freedom of Information commission.

On May 25, after new evidence was submitted indicating that Coca-Cola revealed their contracts on American campuses, the Ubyssey won the right to see the agreement along with other BC campuses such as Capilano College and Trinity Western University.

"It was a matter of principle for the paper," said Ubyssey Coordinating Editor Duncan McHugh. "We felt the university should be accountable to students and it couldn’t do that if it was signing confidential deals with major corporations. We didn’t think it should be hidden from the students or the press."

The deal is worth a one-time payment of $8.5 million to UBC, used for such things as the UBC library, improvement of disability access, and a recent open house. The AMS received $2.4 million for student athletics and event sponsorships.

According to McHugh, the terms regarding advertising are harsh.

"If a private event is going on and the university has any prior knowledge about it, they have to tell them to use Coke," he said. "At a private event, they aren’t allowed to block or turn off any Coke signs or anything like that."

Both UBC and Coca-Cola promptly agreed to release the agreement after the May 25 order from the BC Information and Privacy Commission.

"You look back to 1995, the agreement was really without precedent," said UBC Director of Public Affairs Scott McRae. "It had been made on the understanding it would be confidential. Between that time and now, the climate has changed and most of this particular agreement had already been disclosed by Coca-Cola."

According to Coca-Cola Public Affairs Manager for Western Canada Steve Clark, the disclosure was made in good faith.

"During our submissions [for the case], there were only a few small pieces of sensitive information which we felt could affect competition like commission and pricing things," he explained.

The case cost the Ubyssey $40,000 in legal fees, however, the 2000 BC Supreme Court ruling ordered UBC and Coca-Cola to compensate the Ubyssey for $9,000 of their legal costs.

Reaction to the decision has been varied.

"For a lot of people, it’s not much of an issue anymore," said McHugh. "When the deal was signed in 1995, it was a big deal then. It’s been almost six years; it’s not that big of a deal anymore. Within the student press and student activists, as far as I can tell, people are definitely ecstatic. This is the first exclusivity deal signed on a Canadian campus so it’s pretty symbolic that it’s been opened up."

The decision has not yet affected the U of C’s deal with Pepsi, according to university officials.

Lawyer Andrew Epstein, who represented the Ubyssey, believes it will be very difficult for other universities to hide their exclusivity deals.

"It’s a significant decision, particularly given this contract was written from the beginning in such a way as to make sure the agreement would not be produced under the Freedom of Information legislation," he said. "They actually tried to draft it in such a way to skirt the provisions of the legislation and they have been ultimately unsuccessful in doing that."

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