October 15, 2002
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 and apologize for the delay in response. You referred to meetings of the Board of the Greenburgh Eleven Union Free School District and its duty to comply with the Open Meetings Law, and you indicated that the Board has held meetings at a facility of the Southern Westchester County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES).
In this regard, you wrote that the BOCES requires that all visitors to its facility must sign in and that you were informed that "the sign-in requirement is the result of New York State's SAVE legislation that followed the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City". According to BOCES staff, there is a need "to know if people are in the building, and where they could be located", and that "this is the sole purpose of the sign-in requirement." Further, this BOCES policy, which appears in its handbook, specifies that "All visitors must wear identification and sign in." It is your view, particularly in consideration of "the heightened concern for security and emergency preparedness", that the BOCES requirement "advances a compelling government interest and does not unduly restrict the rights of persons attending public meetings at the facility." You have asked whether the Board "may continue to hold its public meetings at the BOCES facility if visitors are required to sign in."
In my view, the Board may do so.
First, the "sign-in requirement" was not created or drafted by the Board; rather, it reflects the policy of the BOCES.
Second and more importantly in my opinion, the policy does not distinguish among visitors; it imposes certain requirements whether visitors seek to attend a meeting or engage in any other activity within the facility. In my experience, there have often been instances in which security concerns resulted in a requirement that all visitors sign in and wear identification badges of some sort. Particularly in privately owned or large government buildings, visitors must often do so, irrespective of the nature of their business or activity.
When those who want to assert their right to attend a meeting open to the public are not distinguished based on their desire to do so or treated differently from others, I do not believe that the requirements to which you referred "unduly restrict the rights of [those] persons", for they must merely abide by the same requirements as all other visitors who want to enter the facility.
Lastly, again, the requirements at issue were adopted by the BOCES, not the Board. I note, however, that the Board, like other public bodies, has the right to adopt rules to govern its own proceedings (see e.g., Education Law, §1709). In this regard, the courts have found in a variety of contexts that such rules must be reasonable. For example, although a board of education may "adopt by laws and rules for its government and operations", in a case in which a board's rule prohibited the use of tape recorders at its meetings, the Appellate Division found that the rule was unreasonable, stating that the authority to adopt rules "is not unbridled" and that "unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned" [see Mitchell v. Garden City Union Free School District, 113 AD 2d 924, 925 (1985)]. Similarly, if by rule, a public body chose to permit certain citizens to address it for ten minutes while permitting others to address it for three, or not at all, such a rule, in my view, would be unreasonable. In this circumstance, all visitors are being treated in the same manner. That being so, I do not believe that the requirements may be characterized as unreasonable or that they infringe upon the public's right to attend meetings of the Board.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman