January 4, 2006
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.
I have received your letter concerning access to records by members of boards of education.
You referred to decisions rendered by the Commissioner of Education on the subject, the Commissioner’s regulations, and the permissive aspect of the Freedom of Information Law. You also alluded to the ability of a member of a board of education to gain access to "unqualified records" of a school district, and you asked, in essence, what the limit of so-called unqualified records might be.
In this regard, I am unfamiliar with that phrase. However, in an effort to provide general guidance, I offer the following comments.
First, in my view, the Freedom of Information Law is intended to enable the public to request and obtain accessible records. Further, it has been held that accessible records should be made equally available to any person, without regard to status or interest [see e.g., Burke v. Yudelson, 368 NYS 2d 779, aff'd 51 AD 2d 673, 378 NYS 2d 165 (1976) and M. Farbman & Sons v. New York City, 62 NY 2d 75 (1984)]. Nevertheless, if it is clear that records are requested in the performance of one's official duties, the request might not be viewed as having been made under the Freedom of Information Law. In such a situation, if a request is reasonable, and in the absence of a board rule or policy to the contrary, I believe that a member of a public body should not generally be required to resort to the Freedom of Information Law in order to seek or obtain records.
However, viewing the matter from a more technical perspective, one of the functions of a public body involves acting collectively, as an entity. A board of education, as the governing body of a public corporation, generally acts by means of motions carried by an affirmative vote of a majority of its total membership (see General Construction Law, §41). In my opinion, in most instances, a board member acting unilaterally, without the consent or approval of a majority of the total membership of the board, has the same rights as those accorded to a member of the public, unless there is some right conferred upon a board member by means of law or rule. In such a case, a member seeking records could presumably be treated in the same manner as the public generally. When that is so, a request by a member of the board could, in my opinion, be considered as a request made under the Freedom of Information Law by a member of the public, and that person could be assessed fees at the same rate as any member of the public.
Further, in conjunction with the authority conferred by §1709 of the Education Law, I believe that a board of education could adopt rules or procedures pertaining to the rights or privileges of its members concerning the disclosure of records, as well as the imposition or perhaps the waiver of fees for copies under prescribed circumstances.
Second, as you suggested, the Freedom of Information Law is permissive. Although an agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the Court of Appeals in Capital Newspapers v. Burns [67 NY2d 562 (1986)] held that the agency is not obliged to do so and may choose to disclose, stating that:
"...while an agency is permitted to restrict access to those records falling within the statutory exemptions, the language of the exemption provision contains permissible rather than mandatory language, and it is within the agency’s discretion to disclose such records...if it so chooses" (id., 567).
The only situations in which an agency cannot disclose would involve those instances in which a statute other than the Freedom of Information Law prohibits disclosure. The same principle would be applicable under the federal Freedom of Information Act (5 USC §552). While a federal agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial, it has discretionary authority to disclose.
Based on judicial decisions involving exceptions to rights of access in both the state and federal freedom of information statutes, records would not be "specifically exempted from disclosure by...statute pursuant to §87(2)(a) of the New York Freedom of Information Law or pursuant to its counterpart in the federal Act, the "(b)(3)" exception. Both the New York Court of Appeals and federal courts in construing access statutes have determined that the characterization of records as "confidential" or "exempted from disclosure by statute" must be based on statutory language that specifically confers or requires confidentiality. As stated by the Court of Appeals:
"Although we have never held that a State statute must expressly state it is intended to establish a FOIL exemption, we have required a showing of clear legislative intent to establish and preserve that confidentiality which one resisting disclosure claims as protection" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY2d 562, 567 (1986)].
Similarly, in construing the "(b)(3)" exception to rights of access in the federal Act, it has been found that:
"Exemption 3 excludes from its coverage only matters that are:
specifically exempted from disclosure by statute (other than section 552b of this title), provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld.
"5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3) (1982) (emphasis added). Records sought to be withheld under authority of another statute thus escape the release requirements of FOIA if – and only if – that statute meets the requirements of Exemption 3, including the threshold requirement that it specifically exempt matters from disclosure. The Supreme Court has equated ‘specifically’ with ‘explicitly.’ Baldridge v. Shapiro, 455 U.S. 345, 355, 102 S. Ct. 1103, 1109, 71 L.Ed.2d 199 (1982). ‘[O]nly explicitly non-disclosure statutes that evidence a congressional determination that certain materials ought to be kept in confidence will be sufficient to qualify under the exemption.’ Irons & Sears v. Dann, 606 F.2d 1215, 1220 (D.C.Cir.1979) (emphasis added). In other words, a statute that is claimed to qualify as an Exemption 3 withholding statute must, on its face, exempt matters from disclosure"[Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press v. U.S. Department of Justice, 816 F.2d 730, 735 (1987); modified on other grounds,831 F.2d 1184 (1987); reversed on other grounds, 489 U.S. 789 (1989); see also British Airports Authority v. C.A.B., D.C.D.C.1982, 531 F. Supp. 408; Inglesias v. Central Intelligence Agency, D.C.D.C.1981, 525 F.Supp, 547; Hunt v. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, D.C.D.C.1979, 484 F.Supp. 47; Florida Medical Ass’n, Inc. v. Department of Health, Ed. & Welfare, D.C.Fla.1979, 479 F.Supp. 1291].
In short, to be "exempted from disclosure by statute", both state and federal courts have determined that a statute must leave no discretion to an agency: it must withhold such records.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman