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March 04, 2011

Freedom of information and speech

Freedom of information and speech
Informal Opinions of the Attorney General: 2000-2

The basic principle underlying New York State’s Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] is that all public documents are subject to disclosure upon request unless such disclosure is specifically prohibited by law.

For example, the State’s Public Health Law, Mental Hygiene Law and Education Law prohibit the disclosure of certain documents or information to the public without specific authorization by a court.

FOIL, however, also lists a number of exemptions that authorizes, but does not require, the custodian of the document to withhold particular information or documents if, as a matter of discretion, it elects to do so. Similarly, the State’s Open Meetings Law requires that the public be allowed to attend all meetings held by a public entity, although the public may be excluded from executive sessions held by the entity.

Executive sessions may be held for limited purposes, however. These include sessions in which the body will discuss items that would imperil public safety if disclosed; result in the identification of law enforcement personnel or police informants; concern matters involving criminal investigations; discussions concerning pending legislation or Taylor Law negotiations; personnel matters involving a particular individual; certain economic issues and matters concerning examinations and tests.

Although discussions of matters considered in executive session may be withheld even if they are recorded, both FOIL and the Open Meetings Law require that any formal vote taken during an executive session be made a public record subject to FOIL together with a record of how each member of the body voted.

May a local legislative body adopt a resolution prohibiting a member of that body from disclosing matters discussed in an executive session held by that body? This was the question presented to the Attorney General by Gregory J. Amoroso, the City of Rome’s corporation counsel.

In response, the Attorney General noted the parallels between the exceptions allowed under FOIL and the purposes for which a public body may go into an executive session from which the public is barred. His conclusion:

A governing body of a municipality may withhold any records of discussions properly taking place during an executive session and, further, it may prohibit its members from revealing the content of such discussions to the public.

However, cautioned the Attorney General, while the decision to go into executive session is a matter of properly exercising discretion and nothing in either FOIL or the Open Meetings Law prohibits the barring of the disclosure the nature of the discussions conducted in executive session by a participant, all such prohibitions are subject to federal and state freedom of speech requirements.

The clear implication here: neither FOIL nor the Open Meetings Law will serve as a shield in the event a court determines that a limitation placed on revealing matters considered in executive session violates the individual’s constitutional right to free speech. Courts have typically found that limitations placed on a public officer or employee with respect to his or her disclosing matters of public interest violates the individual’s right of free speech.

In contrast, prohibiting an individual from publicly discussing subjects or governmental decisions or actions involving matters of a personal interest rather than a public interest does not violate the individual’s constitutionally protected right of free speech. As the U.S. Supreme Court indicated in Connick v Myers, 461 US 138, constitutional free speech rights are not implicated when only matters of a personal interest to the individual, in contrast to matters of public concern, are involved.
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New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor NYPPL and, or, its staff and contributors are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
New York Public Personnel Law. Email: publications@nycap.rr.com