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Judge rules that firefighter tapes from September 11 are public

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Judge rules that firefighter tapes from September 11 are public

  • A New York Times reporter won access to substantial information from the tapes and transcripts of firefighters during and after the attacks of September 11, but likely will face an appeal by the city.

Feb. 7, 2003 — A New York City judge Feb. 5 granted New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer access to substantial portions of the tapes and transcripts of conversations with firefighters during the events of September 11 and oral histories of the city’s firefighters created after September 11.

Dwyer, who has written extensively about the tragedy, filed a Freedom of Information Law request in June 2002 for the records but the city invoked exemptions to the law to protect privacy, to protect law enforcement investigations, and to avoid interference with confidential internal policy making.

Although Justice Richard Braun approved privacy exemptions to protect the emergency (911) calls of private citizens, he ruled that the reporter can inspect and obtain copies of tapes between city firefighters, dispatchers and other emergency personnel. Calling the situation extraordinarily difficult, Braun said that that they were “public employees” and as such are “not entitled to a privacy exemption.”

Braun ruled that Dwyer may have the factual portions of tapes and transcripts of the more than 500 oral histories created as the fire department interviewed its own employees and reporting portions of the records from operators, dispatchers and units. He allowed the city to withhold from those records “intra-agency materials,” essentially records concerning the policy-making by the agency

Braun also ruled that the city must disclose all information from emergency calls and other information concerning nine men who died in the World Trade Center and whose families filed a friend-of-the-court brief seeking release of the records. He withheld similar records concerning other persons under privacy exemptions to the New York law. Their recorded calls for help were “private utterances,” he said, which should be protected for the sake of those who died and for “their family members and others who cared about them.”

(New York Times v. City of New York; Media counsel: David McGraw, New York City) RD

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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