Attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP are helping an education reporter push back against the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”), which has stonewalled the reporter’s information requests for months.
Jessica Huseman, an investigative journalist for The Teacher Project at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, filed suit in the Supreme Court for the County of New York against the DOE on Feb. 8, after the DOE denied several Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Huseman’s FOIL requests, first submitted in June 2015, sought information about complaints received by the DOE on a special education center hotline, equipment purchase records, and salary and other information about DOE employees – “all records that courts have ordered the DOE itself and other agencies to produce under FOIL,” the lawsuit noted. Huseman subsequently filed a fourth FOIL seeking information about the stalled requests.
“At bottom, this is a dispute about improperly withheld records that shed light on important public issues at the very heart of FOIL’s guarantees: the manner in which New York City educates its children, spends taxpayer money, and responds to complaints about the provision of services to particularly vulnerable students,” the lawsuit argues.
To date, the only information Huseman has received is a spreadsheet in response to the query about complaints, which contained very limited data and nothing about the nature or resolution of those complaints, as Huseman had specifically requested. The DOE cited a federal law prohibiting release of students’ personally identifiable information as reason for the withholding, but failed to explain how the withheld information could identify students or why any identifying information could not be redacted. As for the additional FOIL requests, Huseman received only a series of letters extending the response time month after month, citing boilerplate language about the complexity of the requests and the additional time needed to properly review records.
After her administrative appeals were denied, Huseman obtained an advisory opinion from the NYS Committee on Open Government in her favor and filed suit.
“The DOE’s continuing refusal to provide documents or explain its failure to produce them, and its remarkable assertion that it may render its withholdings effectively unreviewable by awarding itself unilateral, pro forma ‘extensions’ that relieve it of its statutory obligation to ‘explain . . . the reasons for further denial’ in response to an administrative appeal, violate the letter and spirit of FOIL. Worse, these violations have compromised Ms. Huseman’s ability to report on a matter of substantial importance to the people of New York City—the education of its children,” the lawsuit argued.
“The DOE’s unlawful practices should be rebuked, and it should be directed to promptly produce the unlawfully withheld public records.”
About the Reporters Committee
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was founded by leading journalists and media lawyers in 1970, at a time when the nation’s news media faced a wave of government subpoenas asking reporters to name confidential sources. Today it provides a range of legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists. Funded by corporate, foundation, and individual contributions, the Reporters Committee serves the nation’s leading news organizations; thousands of reporters, editors, and media lawyers; and many more who use our online and mobile resources. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.
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