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August 28, 1998

 

Ms. Ruth Keels
19 Crown Avenue
Huntington, NY 11743

The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions.
The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your
correspondence.

Dear Ms. Keels:

I have received your letter of August 20 in which you sought assistance concerning
a request made under the Freedom of Information Law.

According to your letter, on July 13 an employee of the Town of the Town of
Huntington Department of Public Safety came to your home to conduct an inspection to
determine whether there was an illegal apartment. You added that he informed you "that a
petition has been circulated and signed by one hundred and five people, which stated that
there was illegal selling of drugs from [your] house." Your request to review the petition was
denied on the ground that disclosure of the names of those who signed would constitute "an
unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

From my perspective, it is likely that the petition should have been disclosed. In this
regard, I offer the following comments.

As a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption
of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that
records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a)
through (i) of the Law. Among the grounds for denial is the provision cited by the Deputy
Town Attorney, §87(2)(b), which authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that
disclosure would result an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

I note that the determination of your appeal referred to the protection of privacy of
"complainants." In my view, in a typical situation in which an individual complains to a
government agency, the identity of the complainant may justifiably be withheld. The
communication in that instance is solely between the person making the complaint and a
government agency, and I believe that there is generally an expectation of privacy.

In contrast, when a petition is circulated, usually those who sign can and often do read
the names of others who have signed; often, because their friends and neighbors have signed,
that public expression of opinion or support for certain action appearing on a petition
encourages others to add their names to it. When people sign a petition, frequently their
action represents an exception if not a desire on the part of those who signed the petition that
their names would be disclosed, and the submission of a petition generally represents an
indication that the signatories have essentially waived the protection of privacy that they
might otherwise enjoy. In short, it is my view that a petition signed by citizens is intended to
publicly inform an entity of government as well as the public at large that a group of named
individuals seek to express a point of view relative to a particular subject.

If my assumptions are accurate, I do not believe that the Town could justify a denial
of access based on a contention that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of
personal privacy.
In an effort to encourage the Town to reconsider its determination, a copy of this
opinion will be forwarded to the Deputy Town Attorney.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:jm

cc: Thelma Neira, Deputy Town Attorney