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Uniformed Fire Officers Association v. De Blasio (SDNY)

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  1. Freedom of Information

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 31 media organizations

Court: U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

Date Filed: Aug. 14, 2020

Update: In an oral decision on Aug. 21, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected the unions’ petition for a preliminary injunction. Specifically, the Court noted that the police unions had cited no examples which lend credence to their claim that publicizing these records will create a risk of harm to police officers. In its decision, the Court discussed the Citizens Police Data Project, a searchable database of police disciplinary records of Chicago’s police officers, and touched on the value that such databases have for the public. The Court carved out a narrow exception to its ruling for a specific subset of records that may implicate collective bargaining agreements.

Background: In June 2020, New York lawmakers repealed Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law, a provision used to shield police misconduct records from public scrutiny. New York’s fire and police unions then sued the mayor of New York and other city entities to bar them from publishing the records.

While awaiting the resolution of the suit, the unions sought a preliminary injunction to delay the release of  “non-final” and “unsubstantiated” allegations of police misconduct.

Our Position: The district court should deny the preliminary injunction sought by the unions.

  • Journalists and news organizations need timely access to police misconduct records in order to engage in analysis and reporting on law enforcement in New York.
  • The unions have not demonstrated that their case is likely to succeed on the merits.

Quote: “Ensuring timely, meaningful, public access to the records at issue here is precisely what the New York Legislature intended when it repealed Section 50-a. And when journalists are able to scrutinize such records, which speak to the conduct of law enforcement personnel, they can tell stories that have a powerful impact on communities.”

Related: Reporters Committee attorneys filed another friend-of-the-court brief in this case, urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to allow the New York Civil Liberties Union to publish a database of police misconduct records previously shielded by Section 50-a that the organization received through a public records request. The brief argues that enjoining the NYCLU from publishing the database amounts to an unconstitutional prior restraint.

Before New York lawmakers voted to repeal Section 50-a, the Reporters Committee had long advocated against the secrecy provision. In the wake of protests against police brutality earlier this summer, the Reporters Committee sent a letter to New York lawmakers urging them to repeal Section 50-a. Last year, the Reporters Committee submitted testimony to the New York Senate Standing Committee on Codes, arguing that 50-a “has been repeatedly invoked to override the presumption of government transparency that is fundamental to New York’s democratic system of government.” The testimony followed an op-ed Reporters Committee Legal Director Katie Townsend published in the New York Daily News, lamenting that the law “has morphed into a virtually impenetrable wall of secrecy.”

Back in 2016, the Reporters Committee led a coalition of media organizations in an unsuccessful fight to access the shielded disciplinary records for the white New York City police officer who killed 27-year-old Eric Garner with a fatal chokehold.

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