September 9, 2008
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.
I have received your letter in which you sought an advisory opinion concerning rights of access to a petition submitted to the Holland Patent Central School District by the Holland Patent Parents 4 Change and signed by “more than 1,000 people seeking a re-vote” pertaining to a capital project. It is your view that the original petition should be accessible, and that there “is no requirement to edit or redact.”
In this regard, first, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to all records of an agency, such as the District, and §86(4) of that statute defines the term “record” to mean:
"...any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Based on the foregoing, a petition submitted to an agency clearly constitutes a “record” falling within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
Second, 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 (j) of the Law. Among the grounds for denial is §87(2)(b), which authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would result an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. In my view, however, that exception could not validly be asserted.
When a petition is circulated, in most instances 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 opinion 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, the “original petition” must be disclosed.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education
Nancy Nowicki, Records Access Officer