July 14, 2005
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
As you are aware, I have received your letter concerning the placement of minutes of meetings of the Town Board of the Town of Canandaigua on the Town’s website. You wrote that the Town Clerk indicated that I "recommended against posting town board minutes on a town’s website because individuals who speak at a Town Board meeting must give their name and address, and that posting the minutes which included that information would be a breach of their privacy." You have asked whether the Clerk correctly described my position on the matter.
I believe that she did so, and for purposes of clarification, I offer the following comments.
First, I note that the Town Clerk requested an opinion raising essentially the same issue. It was pointed out in that opinion that, in my view, there is nothing that requires that the names and addresses of those who speak at meetings be included in the minutes of those meetings. While those items may be included, there is no obligation to do so. In a related vein, it was suggested that there are circumstances in which it may be damaging in some way for a person who wishes to speak before a public body to identify himself or herself with his or name and address.
Second, I do not believe that it would be contrary to law for the Clerk to include speakers’ names and addresses with minutes of meetings and to place those minutes on the Town’s website. Nevertheless, as suggested to the Clerk, I question the wisdom of doing so. As stated in the opinion addressed to her:
"When a person’s name and home address are placed on a website, anyone, anywhere in the world, has the ability to obtain and combine them with other items available in cyberspace by means of various search engines and data mining. When a name and an address are placed on a website, anyone, anywhere has the ability to acquire a variety of additional data about a person and use that information for purposes that cannot be anticipated. Persons identified may be solicited online or by other means; profiles of individuals can be developed; information about a person may be used for illegal purposes or perhaps to transmit viruses that can disable computers or electronic information systems."
Lastly, you referred to other records, such as real property assessment rolls, that are posted on the internet. It is true that those and similar records have been made available via government websites. It is also true, however, that concern regarding the inclusion of personal information accessible via a government website has increased and in some cases has resulted in reconsideration and changes in practices. For instance, in Nassau County, where the assessment roll was posted and included names of owners of parcels of real property, there were strong objections. As a consequence, the names were excluded from the data made available online. Similarly, court records that have historically been available for inspection and copying remain available, but new policies will enable those who file those records to exclude social security and bank account numbers, as well as other personal information, from the records prior to filing. While court records have generally been available for inspection and copying at a court clerk’s office, it was considered appropriate to remove certain items from those records prior to filing due to their potential use or misuse when made available via the internet.
I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding of the advice that I have given and that you can appreciate its basis.
cc: Hon. Judith H. Carson