October 23, 2000
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 information presented in your
correspondence, unless otherwise indicated.
I have received your letter, as well as a videotape of a meeting held by the Shoreham-
Wading River School District Board of Education. The Board is considering the adoption of a policy that would enable a person present at an open meeting to ask that the use of audio or video equipment be discontinued. Such a request could be granted by the Board president, unless overruled by a majority of the Board.
During the Board's discussion of the issue, the Superintendent suggested that
videotapes of meetings may be intended to be used as a "political mechanism" and would
cause divisiveness in the District. A Board member echoed that view and suggested that videotaping a meeting is "inherently more obtrusive" and "inherently more likely to detract
from the deliberative process" than audio recording. In essence, he opined that the use of
video recording devices discourages people from speaking at meetings, for it is intimidating
to some. It was also stated that the Board was advised that the proposed policy would "pass legal muster."
Based on judicial decisions, the proposed policy would not, in my view, pass legal
While it is true that the terms used during the discussion by the Board appear in those decisions, the courts have referred to the nature and use of the equipment being obtrusive or disruptive, rather than the impact on or sensibilities or preferences of persons who might
speak at meetings. You have raised a variety of issues relating to the matter, and although I
will not address them separately or conjecture as to the questions dealing with the possibility of arrests, the following paragraphs will deal the substance of those issues.
It is noted at the outset that the Open Meetings Law is applicable to meetings of
public bodies, such as boards of education, and that any gathering of a public body for the
purpose of conducting public business, collectively, as a body constitutes a "meeting" that
falls within the coverage of that statute [see Open Meetings Law, §102(1) and (2)].
The decision to which you referred, Peloquin v. Arsenault [162 Misc. 2d 306, 616
NYS2d 716 (1994)], is the only decision of which I am aware that deals with the use of video recording devices at open meetings. However, it is the latest in a series of decisions
pertaining to the use of recording equipment at meetings. In my opinion, those decisions
consistently apply certain principles. One is that a public body has the ability to adopt
reasonable rules concerning its proceedings. The other involves whether the use of the
equipment would be disruptive.
By way of background, until 1978, there had been but one judicial determination
regarding the use of the recording devices at meetings of public bodies. The only case on the
subject was Davidson v. Common Council of the City of White Plains, 244 NYS 2d 385,
which was decided in 1963. In short, the court in Davidson found that the presence of a tape
recorder, which at that time was a large, conspicuous machine, might detract from the
deliberative process. Therefore, it was held that a public body could adopt rules generally
prohibiting the use of tape recorders at open meetings.
Notwithstanding Davidson, however, the Committee advised that the use of tape recorders should not be prohibited in situations in which the devices are unobtrusive, for the presence of such devices would not detract from the deliberative process. In the Committee's view, a rule prohibiting the use of unobtrusive tape recording devices would not be reasonable if the presence of such devices would not detract from the deliberative process.
This contention was initially confirmed in a decision rendered in 1979. That case
arose when two individuals sought to bring their tape recorders at a meeting of a school board
in Suffolk County. The school board refused permission and in fact complained to local law
enforcement authorities who arrested the two individuals. In determining the issues, the
court in People v. Ystueta, 418 NYS 2d 508, cited the Davidson decision, but found that the Davidson case:
"was decided in 1963, some fifteen (15) years before the
legislative passage of the 'Open Meetings Law', and before the
widespread use of hand held cassette recorders which can be
operated by individuals without interference with public
proceedings or the legislative process. While this court has
had the advantage of hindsight, it would have required great
foresight on the part of the court in Davidson to foresee the opening of many legislative halls and courtrooms to television cameras and the news media, in general. Much has happened
over the past two decades to alter the manner in which governments and their agencies conduct their public business.
The need today appears to be truth in government and the restoration of public confidence and not 'to prevent star chamber proceedings'...In the wake of Watergate and its aftermath, the prevention of star chamber proceedings does not appear to be lofty enough an ideal for a legislative body; and the legislature seems to have recognized as much when it passed the Open Meetings Law, embodying principles which in 1963 was the dream of a few, and unthinkable by the majority"(id., 509-510; emphasis mine).
Several years later, the Appellate Division, Second Department, which includes
Suffolk County, unanimously affirmed a decision of Supreme Court, Nassau County, which
annulled a resolution adopted by a board of education prohibiting the use of tape recorders at
its meetings and directed the board to permit the public to tape record public meetings of the
board [Mitchell v. Board of Education of Garden City School District, 113 AD 2d 924
(1985)]. In so holding, the Court stated that:
"While Education Law sec. 1709(1) authorizes a board of
education to adopt by-laws and rules for its government and
operations, this authority is not unbridled. Irrational and
unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned. Moreover, Public Officers Law sec. 107(1) specifically provides that 'the court shall have the power, in its discretion, upon good cause shown, to declare any action *** taken in violation of [the Open Meetings Law], void in whole or in part.' Because we find that a prohibition against the use of unobtrusive recording goal of a fully informed citizenry, we accordingly affirm the judgement annulling the resolution of the respondent board of education" (id. at 925).
In consideration of the "obtrusiveness" or distraction caused by the presence of a tape
recorder, it was determined by the Court that " the unsupervised recording of public comment by portable , hand-held tape recorders is not obtrusive, and will not distract from the true deliberative process" (id., 925). Further, the Court found that the comments of members of the public, as well as public officials, may be recorded. As stated in Mitchell:
"[t]hose who attend such meetings, who decide to freely speak out and voice their opinions, fully realize that their comments and remarks are being made in a public forum. The argument that members of the public should be protected from the use of their words, and that they have some sort of privacy interest in their own comments, is therefore wholly specious" (id.).
In short, the nature and use of the equipment were the factors considered by the Court in
determining whether its presence affected the deliberative process, not the privacy or
sensibilities of those who chose to speak.
In view of the judicial determination rendered by the Appellate Division, a member of
the public may tape record open meetings of public bodies, so long as tape recording is
carried out unobtrusively and in a manner that does not detract from the deliberative process.
While Mitchell pertained to the use of audio tape recorders, I believe that the same points as those offered by the Court would be applicable in the context of the use of video recorders. Just as the words of members of the public can be heard at open meetings, those persons can also been seen by anyone who attends.
In Peloquin, supra, the court focused primarily on the manner in which camera equipment is physically used and found that the unobtrusive use of cameras at open meetings could not be prohibited by means of a "blanket ban." The Court expansively discussed the notion of what may be "obtrusive" and referred to the Mitchell holding and quoted from an opinion rendered by this office as follows:
"On August 26, 1986 the Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government opined (OML-AO-1317, p.3) with respect to video recording as follows:
‘If the equipment is large, if special lighting is needed, and if it is obtrusive and distracting, I believe that a rule prohibiting its use under those circumstances would be reasonable. However, if advances in technology permit video equipment to be used without special lighting, in a stationary location and in an unobtrusive manner, it is questionable in my view whether a prohibition under those circumstances would be reasonable.'
On April 1, 1994, Mr. Freeman further opined (OML-AO-2324) that a county
legislature's resolution limiting hand held camcorders to the spectator area in
the rear of the legislative chamber was not per se unreasonable but rather, as
challenged, it depended for its legitimacy on whether or not the camcorders
could actually record the proceedings from that location.
Blanket prohibition of audio recording is not permissible, and it is likely that the appellate courts would find that also to be the case with blanket prohibitions of video recording. However, what might be reasonable in one physical setting - a village board restricting camcording to the rear area of its meeting room - might not be in another - the larger chambers of a county legislature (OML-AO-1317, supra). It might well be reasonable in a village or other space-restricted setting to restrict the number of camcorders to one, as
the court system may with its pooling requirement for video coverage of trials (22 NYCRR Parts 22 and 131). Such a requirement might be viewed as unreasonable in a large county legislative chamber or where a local board of education is conducting a meeting in a school auditorium.
As Mr. Freeman observed with respect to video recording (OML-AO-1317,
supra), if it is ‘obtrusive and distracting', a ban on it is not unreasonable. It is
here claimed to be distracting. Tupper Lake Village Board members and
some segment of the public aver that they are distracted from the business at
hand because they do not wish to appear on television - the sole justification
offered in defense of the policy.
Mitchell, supra, held that fear of public airing of one's comments at a public meeting is insufficient to sustain a ban on audio recording.
Is Mr. Peloquin's (or anyone's else's) video recording of a village board
"...Hand held audio recorders are unobtrusive (Mitchell, supra); camcorders may or may not be depending, as we have seen, on the circumstances. Suffice it to say, however, in the face of Mitchell, the Committee on Open Government's (Robert Freeman's) well-reasoned opinions supra and the court system's pooled video coverage rules/options, a blanket ban on all cameras and camcorders when the sole justification is a distaste for appearing on public access cable television is unreasonable. While "distraction" and "unobtrusive" are subjective terms, in the face of the virtual presumption of openness contained in Article 7 of the Public Officers law and the insufficient justification offered by the Village, the ‘Recording Policy' in issue here must fall" (id., 717, 718; emphasis added by the court).
From my perspective, since the basis for the denial of the use of video recording devices in Peloquin, "distaste for appearing on public access television", is analogous to the basis of the proposed policy, that policy would, if adopted, be found by a court to be equally unreasonable and void.
A second issue involves access to records indicating "costs related to consulting district attorneys for advice on this policy." The records were sought by Board members, but the request was denied, because, in your words, "it did not come from the majority of the Board." If I understand the situation accurately, the records in question should be disclosed to the Board members, and to any person who seeks them under the Freedom of Information Law.
That statute is based on 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. It is emphasized that
the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions
thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the
statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it
also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing
Pertinent with respect to the records at issue is a decision that involved a request for
the amount of money paid in 1994 to a particular law firm for legal services rendered in
representing the County in a landfill expansion suit, as well as "copies of invoices, bills,
vouchers submitted to the county from the law firm justifying and itemizing the expenses for
1994" (id., 599). Although monthly bills indicating amounts charged by the firm were disclosed, the agency redacted "'the daily descriptions of the specific tasks' (the description
material) 'including descriptions of issues researched, meetings and conversations between
attorney and client'" (id.). The County offered several rationales for the redactions; nevertheless, the court rejected all of them, in some instances fully, in others in part.
The first contention was that the descriptive material is specifically exempted from
disclosure by statute in conjunction with §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law and
the assertion of the attorney-client privilege pursuant to §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR). The court found that the mere communication between the law firm and the County as its client does not necessarily involve a privileged communication; rather, the
court stressed that it is the content of the communications that determine the extent to which
the privilege applies. Further, the court distinguished between actual communications
between attorney and client and descriptions of the legal services provided, stating that:
"Thus, respondent's position can be sustained only if such descriptions rise to the level of protected communications.
"In this regard, the Court recognizes that not all
communications between attorney and client are privileged.
Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, supra, 51 N.Y.2d 68, 69, 409
N.E.2d 983, 431, N.Y.S.2d 511. In particular, 'fee arrangements between attorney and client do not ordinarily constitute a confidential communication and, thus, are not
privileged in the usual case' (Ibid.). Indeed, ‘[a] communication concerning the fee to be paid has no direct relevance to the legal advice to be given', but rather "[i]s a collateral matter which, unlike communications which relate to the subject matter of the attorney's professional employment, is not privileged' Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, supra, 51 N.Y.2d
at 69, 409 N.E.2d 983, 431 N.Y.S.2d 511.
"Consequently, while billing statements which 'are detailed in
showing services, conversations, and conferences between
counsel and others' are protected by the attorney-client
privilege (Licensing Corporation of America v. National
Hockey League Players Association, 153 Misc.2d 126, 127-
128, 580 N.Y.S.2d 128 [Sup. Ct. N.Y.Co. 1992]; see, De La
Roche v. De La Roche, 209 A.D.2d 157, 158-159 [1st Dept.
1994]), no such privilege attaches to fee statements which do not provide 'detailed accounts' of the legal services provided by counsel..." (id., 602).
It was also contended that the records could be withheld on the ground that they
constituted attorney work product or material prepared for litigation that are exempted from
disclosure by statute [see CPLR, §3101(c) and (d)]. In dealing with that claim, it was stated by the court that:
"Respondent's denial of the FOIL request cannot be upheld
unless the descriptive material is uniquely the product of the
professional skills of respondent's outside counsel. The
preparation and submission of a bill for fees due and owing, not at all dependent on legal expertise, education or training, cannot be 'attribute[d]...to the unique skills of an attorney'
(Brandman v. Cross & Brown Co., 125 Misc.2d 185, 188 479 N.Y.S.2d 435 [Sup. Ct. Kings Ct. 1984]). Therefore, the attorney work product privilege does not serve as an absolute bar to disclosure of the descriptive material. (See, id.).
"Nevertheless, depending upon how much information is set
forth in the descriptive material, a limited portion of that
information may be protected from disclosure, either under the
work product privilege, or the privilege for materials prepared for litigation, as codified in CPLR 3101(d)..."While the Court has not been presented with any of the billing records sought, the Court understands that they may contain specific references to: legal issues researched, which bears upon the law firm's theories of the landfill action; conferences
with witnesses not yet identified and interviewed by respondent's adversary in that lawsuit; and other legal services which were provided as part of counsel's representation of respondent in that ongoing legal action...Certainly, any such references to interviews, conversations or correspondence with particular individuals, prospective pleadings or motions, legal theories, or similar matters, may be protected either as work product or material prepared for litigation, or both" (emphasis added by the court) (id., 604).
Finally, it was contended that the records consisted of intra-agency materials that could be withheld under §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision permits an agency to 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.
The court found that much of the information would likely consist of factual information available under §87(2)(g)(i) and stated that:
"...the Court concludes that respondent has failed to establish
that petitioner should be denied access to the descriptive
material as a whole. While it is possible that some of the
descriptive material may fall within the exempted category of expressions of opinion, respondent has failed to identify with any particularity those portions which are not subject to disclosure under Public Officers Law §87(2)(g). See, Matter of Dunlea v. Goldmark, supra, 54 A.D.2d 449, 389 N.Y.S.2d 423. Certainly, any information which merely reports an event or factual occurrence, such as a conference, telephone call, research, court appearance, or similar description of legal work, and which does not disclose opinions, recommendations or statements of legal strategy will not be barred from disclosure under this exemption. See, Ingram v. Axelrod, supra" (id., 605-606).
In short, although it was found that some aspects of the records in question might properly be withheld based on their specific contents, a blanket denial of access was clearly inconsistent with law, and substantial portions of the records were found to be accessible.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of applicable law, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to the Board of Education and the Superintendent.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Board of Education
Superintendent of Schools