May 14, 2014
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.
This is in response to your request for an advisory opinion regarding application of the Freedom of Information Law to security and surveillance related records of the Farmingdale School District. Specifically, you received a request for “the proposals and invoices from the years 2009 to present including all bids, RFPs, contractors’ names, the equipment model numbers, cost and labor hours to install. In addition the recent security and surveillance camera upgrades the same requested information for the ‘Lobby Guard System’ which was recently installed.”
You expressed concerns regarding the safety and security of the children, school staff and residents in the community, and we agree, these are issues of paramount concern to all. This will confirm that to the extent that the District can show that disclosure could endanger the life or safety of any person, portions of records or records themselves may be withheld pursuant to §87(2)(e).
Disclosure of the bulk of the requested records, however, may not result in the harm that you seek to prevent. For example, disclosure of requests for proposals, which are or were public, and disclosure of records indicating bidders’ or contractor’s names or installation costs, in our opinion, would not endanger a person’s life or safety. For reasons outlined below, while there may be portions of a submitting entity’s proposal or bid that could be withheld, generally, the requested records would be required to be made public upon request.
In this regard, 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 (l) of the Law. One of the exceptions to rights of access, §87(2)(f), authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure “could endanger the life or safety of any person.”
There are few judicial decisions concerning the assertion of §87(2)(f). The focus of the courts in those decisions involves the likelihood that particular individuals or locations could be placed in jeopardy by means of disclosure. In numerous situations in which the application of §87(2)(f) is at issue, a primary consideration involves the degree of detail contained in the records. For instance, it was determined in American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Siebert that disclosure of the home addresses of applicants for check cashing licenses would "expose applicants and their families to danger to life or safety" (110 Misc.2d 744, 442 NYS2d 855, 859 ). Also notable is the holding by the Appellate Division in Flowers v. Sullivan (149 AD2d 287, 545 NYS2d 289 ) in which it was held that “the information sought to be disclosed, namely, specifications and other data relating to the electrical and security transmission systems of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, falls within one of the exceptions.” (Id. at 295.) In citing §87(2)(f), the Court stated that:
“It seems clear that disclosure of details regarding the electrical, security and transmission systems of Sing Sing Correctional Facility might impair the effectiveness of these systems and compromise the safe and successful operation of the prison. These risks are magnified when we consider the fact that disclosure is sought by inmates. Suppression of the documentation sought by the petitioners, to the extent that it exists, was, therefore, consonant with the statutory exemption which shelters from disclosure information which could endanger the life or safety of another.” (Id.)
As we view the decisions cited above, the detail within the records justified the assertion of the exception. In one case, the detail involved names and addresses of specific individuals at their homes; in the other, it involved “specifications” relating to electrical and security transmission systems. In the context of your request, if details concerning the placement of particular cameras or security devices, or the model number of a particular security product were made public, it might be appropriately contended that disclosure could endanger life or safety. On the other hand, disclosure of the general nature or purpose of a security system, for example, or perhaps the location of cameras that are visible to the public, in our opinion, would be unlikely to endanger the life or safety of persons attending school and/or working in the building.
In short, we believe that a blanket denial of access by the District would be overbroad. In our opinion, it is not likely that the District could demonstrate that there is a reasonable likelihood that disclosure of all of the information contained in the requested records could endanger life or safety.
We hope this is helpful.
Camille S. Jobin-Davis