October 20, 1994
Ms. Isidore Gerber
31 St. Pauls Place
Liberty, NY 12754
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. Gerber:
I have received your letter of September 22.
According to your letter, you requested "the packet received by Liberty Central School Board of Education members before meetings" and specified that "deniable documents would be the exception." In response, the Assistant Superintendent stated, in your words, "that he does not know what deniable documents are according to state law." You asked that I "state the law" for you and for him.
In this regard, as you are aware, 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. From my perspective, the contents of the records in question serve as the factors relevant to an analysis of the extent to which the records may be withheld or must be disclosed. In my view, several of the grounds for denial may be relevant to such an analysis.
Records prepared by District staff and forwarded to members of the Board would constitute intra-agency materials that fall within the coverage of §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states that an agency may withhold records that:
"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:
i. statistical or factual tabulations or data; ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;
iii. final agency policy or determinations; or
iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."
It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter-agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld. It is emphasized that the Court of Appeals, the State's highest court has specified that the contents of intra-agency materials determine the extent to which they may be available or withheld, for it was held that:
"While the reports in principle may be exempt from disclosure, on this record - which contains only the barest description of them - we cannot determine whether the documents in fact fall wholly within the scope of FOIL's exemption for 'intra-agency materials,' as claimed by respondents. To the extent the reports contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law section 87[g][i], or other material subject to production, they should be redacted and made available to the appellant" [Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 NY 2d 131, 133 (1985)].
Therefore, as indicated earlier, intra-agency materials may be accessible or deniable in whole or in part, depending upon their specific contents.
Also relevant may be §87(2)(b), which enables an agency to withhold records or portions thereof which if disclosed would result in an unwarranted invasion of privacy. That provision might be applied with respect to a variety of matters relating to hiring, evaluation or discipline of teachers or other staff, for example.
Section 87(2)(c) of the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure "would impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations". Items within an agenda packet might in some instances fall within that exception.
Section 87(2)(a) pertains to records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute". One such statute is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 U.S.C. §1232g). In brief, that statute generally forbids a school district from disclosing personally identifiable information concerning students, unless the parents of students consent to disclosure.
In short, while a blanket denial of an agenda packet may be inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Law, there would likely be one or more grounds for denial that could appropriately be cited withhold portions of those records.
I point out that although records or perhaps portions of records may be withheld, there is no requirement that they must be withheld. The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, has confirmed that the exceptions to rights of access are permissive, rather than mandatory, 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, with or without identifying details, if it so chooses" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 567 (1986)].
Consequently, even if it is determined that a record may be withheld under §87(2)(g), for example, an agency would have the authority to disclose the record.
It is also emphasized that the grounds for withholding records under the Freedom of Information Law and the grounds for entry into executive session are separate and distinct, and that they are not necessarily consistent. In some instances, although a record might be withheld under the Freedom of Information Law, a discussion of that record might be required to be conducted in public under the Open Meetings Law, and vice versa. For instance, if an administrator transmits a memorandum to the Board suggesting a change in the curriculum, that record could be withheld. It would consist of intra-agency material reflective of an opinion or recommendation. Nevertheless, when the Board discusses the recommendation at a meeting, there would be no basis for conducting an executive session. Consequently, there may be no reason for withholding the record even though the Freedom of Information Law would so permit. Further, in a decision in which the issue was whether discussions occurring during an executive session 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 an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the matter, a copy of this opinion will be sent to the Assistant Superintendent.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Anthony Pagnucco, Assistant Superintendent