August 20, 2007
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
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, unless otherwise indicated.
As you are aware, I have received your inquiry. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.
You referred to a policy in the town in which you reside “wherein anyone who makes a request for information under the Freedom of Information Law has their name, address, and in some instances, phone number, posted on the town’s website, along with the information they are requesting.” You wrote that the practice is “discouraging many residents from making requests” and asked whether the town “can...do that.”
Based on similar inquiries, I would conjecture that you are referring to the Town of Irondequoit. Although the policy in my opinion is not contrary to law, I believe that it is unnecessary and apparently intended to dissuade members of the public from asserting their rights of access to government records.
In this regard, there is no law that requires that government agencies to post items on websites, and I know of no municipality that posts requests made under the Freedom of Information Law, including the names and addresses of those seeking records, as a matter of practice or policy. I note, however, that it has been advised that, depending on the facts associated with a request, identifying details concerning the applicant may be withheld on the ground that disclosure would constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” [see Freedom of Information Law, §§87(2)(b) and 89(2)(b)]. While home addresses may often be acquired easily from a variety of sources, it has consistently been advised that home telephone numbers may be withheld to protect privacy.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, I point out that the Freedom of Information Law is permissive; even in situations in which an agency may withhold records or portions of records, it is not obliged to do so [see Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY2d 562, 567 (1986)]. Therefore, even if the Town could withhold records or portions of records on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see §87(2)(b)], it would not be required to do so.
In short, irrespective of the motivation of the Town regarding the policy in question, I do not believe that there is any provision of law that prohibits the Town from posting requests for records made under the Freedom of Information Law on its website, including the names, home addresses and home phone numbers of those seeking records.
I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding and that I have been of assistance.
cc: Town Board