Coca-Cola deal to face court scrutiny

August 8, 1997

A student newspaper istaking the University of British Columbia to court in an effort to unlock details of a confidential advertising agreement with Coca-Cola.

Two years ago, the university was promised an undisclosed annual sum for signing a contract with Coca-Cola Bottling, giving the company exclusive rights to advertise and sell soft drinks on campus for ten years.

A reporter at the university's Ubyssey newspaper, who asked for details of the contract, ran into a wall of silence.

The province's information and privacy office confirmed the university's decision to refuse the paper access to almost all 209 pages of documents relating to setting up the first exclusive contract between a soft drinks company and a Canadian university.

David Flaherty, information and privacy commissioner of British Columbia, said disclosure would harm the financial or economic interests of both the university and Coca-Cola.

Exclusive contracts for consumer products are nothing new in Canadian schools, but university cafeteria and catering contracts are in the hands of very few corporations.

Scores of Canadian high schools have signed exclusive contracts with soft drink companies and, since the British Columbia deal in 1995, other cold-drink contracts have popped up at universities. In January, Pepsi signed a ten-year deal with the University ofManitoba.

It is not the exclusivity that seems to be bothering the student newspaper. It says that regardless of the deal's worth to the university, publicly funded institutions such as universities should be open to the scrutiny of the media and taxpayers who fund them.

"I would be very wary to give over decision-making powers of the university to private corporations," said the paper's coordinating editor, Joseph Clark.

"Since this deal has set a precedent, the school should be setting a precedent for openness."

When the newspaper goes to court this autumn, it will ask why there exists a confidentiality agreement when Coca-Cola signed similar exclusivity agreements that were not confidential, including the one with Penn State and another with the Vancouver Parks Board.

British Columbia's acting vice resident, Dennis Pavlich, said the contract with Coca-Cola was part of the university's business operations and should not be confused with its academic mandate.

"If Coke said they wanted a course in commerce which extolled the virtues of drinking gallons of the stuff every day, that would be the end of the university," he said.

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