Disclosure of public information or records to one is disclosure to all

Disclosure of public information or records to one is disclosure to all

The basic rule when considering a Freedom of Information Law [FOIL] request is that the theory underlying FOIL is that all public documents are subject to disclosure.

The release of some public records, however, may be limited by statute [see, for example, Education Law, §1127 - Confidentiality of records; §33.13, Mental Hygiene Law - Clinical records; confidentiality]. Otherwise, an individual is not required to submit a FOIL request as a condition precedent to obtaining public records where access is not barred by statute.

However, the custodian of the records may elect to deny access to documents otherwise subject FOIL absent a FOIL request or if it decides that the document requested may be withheld because it meets one or more of the exceptions set out in the law.

Significantly, there is no bar to providing information pursuant to a FOIL request, or otherwise, even if it falls within one or more of the exceptions that the custodian could rely upon in denying a FOIL request, in whole or in part, for the information or records demanded.

Indeed, a FOIL request is required only in the event the custodian of the public record[s] sought declines to “voluntarily” provide the information or record requested. In such cases the individual or organization world be required to file a FOIL request to obtain the information or record.

Further, it appears that once the information or record sought is provided to one party, it may not be denied to another party.

On this point the State’s Committee On Open Government advised a Town’s attorney that there was no legal basis to withhold the information requested pursuant to a newspaper’s FOIL request after it was disclosed to another newspaper.

In this instance Robert Freeman, the Committee’s Executive Director, stated that, in his view, “If a record is disclosed to one news media organization [by the custodian of the record]…it should be disclosed to any news media or for that matter any person requesting it.” Notwithstanding this advisory opinion, the Town’s attorney refused to supply the document demanded in the FOIL request submitted to the Town’s clerk.

Once possible exception: if the document demanded was provided pursuant to a court order or a subpoena, this may not constitute “disclosure” within Mr. Freeman’s meaning.