December 12, 2007
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.
Dear Ms. Hall:
I have received your letter in which you wrote that you “have had several former members of [y]our local school board approach [you] and state they have information, but they cannot divulge it as it was discussed in executive session.” You expressed an understanding, however, that “once an individual is no longer a member of the board, they are no longer bound by confidentiality in terms of executive session and are free to discuss it if they so choose.”
You have asked that I confirm that to be so. In brief, in my opinion, the only instances in which members of a public body, such as a board of education, are prohibited from disclosing information would involve matters that are indeed “confidential.” When a public body has the discretionary authority to discuss a matter in public or in private, I do not believe that the matter can properly be characterized as “confidential.” Further, when an individual no longer serves as a board member, as you have suggested, with one exception, I believe that he/she is free to discuss any topic.
I note that the Commissioner of Education has rendered a decision indicating that board members may be removed from office if they divulge information acquired during an executive session. Notwithstanding my disagreement with that decision, I do not believe that it would apply to a former board member.
The Commissioner’s decision in Application of Nett and Raby (No. 15315, October 24, 2005) states as follows:
“In addition to a board member’s general duties and responsibilities, General Municipal Law §805-a(1)(b) provides that no municipal officer or employee (including a school board member) shall ‘disclose confidential information acquired by him in the course of his official duties or use such information to further his personal interests.’ It is well settled that a board member’s disclosure of confidential information obtained at an executive session of a board meeting violates §805-a(1)(b) (see Applications of Balen, 40 Ed Dept Rep 250, Decision No. 14,474; Application of the Bd. of Educ.of the Middle Country Central School Dist., 33 id. 511, Decision No. 13,132; Appeal of Henning and Rohrer, 33 id, 232, Decision No. 13,035).
“Less clear is what constitutes ‘confidential’ information. The term ‘confidential’ is not defined in the General Municipal Law and the legislative history of §805-a does not provide any additional guidance into the meaning of that word...
“Absent a clear statutory definition, and given the importance of ensuring a uniform application in the educational system, the interpretation of ‘confidential’ in the school context is a matter best left to the Commissioner (see Komyathy v. Bd. of Educ. Wappinger Central School District No. 1, 75 Misc. 2d 859). Information that is meant to be kept secret is by general definition considered to be ‘confidential’ (see Black’s Law Dictionary [8th Ed. 2004]).”
While some interpretations of law might be “best left to the Commissioner”, I point out that each of the precedents cited in the excerpt of the decision quoted above involve the Commissioner’s own decisions. Not referenced, however, are judicial decisions that are contrary to his conclusion.
Many judicial decisions have focused on access to and the ability to disclose records, and this office has considered the New York Freedom of Information Law, the federal Freedom of Information Act, and the Open Meetings Law in its analyses of what may be “confidential.” To be confidential under the Freedom of Information Law, I believe that records must be “specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute” in accordance with §87(2)(a). Similarly, §108(3) of the Open Meetings Law refers to matters made confidential by state or federal law as “exempt” from the provisions of that statute.
Both the state’s highest court, the 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)].
In like manner, in construing the equivalent 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.
In contrast, when records are not exempted from disclosure by a separate statute, both the Freedom of Information Law and its federal counterpart are permissive. Although an agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the Court of Appeals 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” (Capital Newspapers, supra, 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 is so under the federal Act. While a federal agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial, it has discretionary authority to disclose. Stated differently, there is nothing inherently confidential about records that an agency may choose to withhold or disclose; only when an agency has no discretion and must deny access would records be confidential or “specifically exempted from disclosure by statute” in accordance with §87(2)(a).
The same analysis is applicable in the context of the Open Meetings Law. While that statute authorizes public bodies to conduct executive sessions in circumstances described in paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1), again, there is no requirement that an executive session be held even though a public body has the right to do so. The introductory language of §105(1), which prescribes a procedure that must be accomplished before an executive session may be held, clearly indicates that a public body "may" conduct an executive session only after having completed that procedure. If, for example, a motion is made to conduct an executive session for a valid reason, and the motion is not carried, the public body could either discuss the issue in public or table the matter for discussion in the future.
Since a public body may choose to conduct an executive session or discuss an issue in public, information expressed during an executive session is not “confidential.” To be confidential, again, a statute must prohibit disclosure and leave no discretion to an agency or official regarding the ability to disclose.
By means of example, if a discussion by a board of education concerns a record pertaining to a particular student (i.e., in the case of consideration of disciplinary action, an educational program, an award, etc.), the discussion would have to occur in private and the record would have to be withheld insofar as public discussion or disclosure would identify the student. As you may be aware, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC §1232g) generally prohibits an educational agency from disclosing education records or information derived from those records that are identifiable to a student, unless the parents of the student consent to disclosure. In the context of the Open Meetings Law, a discussion concerning a student would constitute a matter made confidential by federal law and would be exempted from the coverage of that statute [see Open Meetings Law, §108(3)]. In the context of the Freedom of Information Law, an education record would be specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in accordance with §87(2)(a). In both contexts, I believe that a board of education, its members and school district employees would be prohibited from disclosing, because a statute requires confidentiality.
The Commissioner failed to include reference to the only judicial decision of which I am aware that dealt squarely with the assertion that information acquired during an executive session is confidential. In a case in which the issue was whether discussions occurring during an executive session held by a school board could be considered "privileged", it was held that "there is no statutory provision that describes the matter dealt with at such a session as confidential or which in any way restricts the participants from disclosing what took place" (Runyon v. Board of Education, West Hempstead Union Free School District No. 27, Supreme Court, Nassau County, January 29, 1987). In the context of most of the duties of most municipal boards, councils or similar bodies, there is no statute that forbids disclosure or requires confidentiality. Again, the Freedom of Information Law states that an agency may withhold records in certain circumstances; it has discretion to grant or deny access. The only instances in which records may be characterized as “confidential” would, based on judicial interpretations, involve those situations in which a statute prohibits disclosure and leaves no discretion to a person or body.
Based on the foregoing, I believe that the Commissioner’s conclusion that information that may be withheld or that information that may be discussed in executive session is confidential is inaccurate and contrary to the weight of judicial authority.
I am not suggesting that board members, present or former should intentionally disclose information that could clearly be damaging to an individual or the operation of a governmental entity. However, based on the proceeding analysis, I reiterate my belief that the Commissioner’s conclusion is inconsistent with both state and federal judicial decisions.
Lastly, if a person no longer serves as a member of a board of education, I do not believe that he or she could be penalized by the Commissioner of Education or a board of education. Further, I believe that, with one exception, a former board member is free to disclose information as he/she sees fit. The exception, in my opinion, would involve information identifiable to a student acquired in his/her capacity as a member of the board when that information is required to be kept confidential by federal law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman