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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic Wins Access to Emails Between NYC Mayor’s Office and Former City Schools Chancellor

In a victory for freedom of information and Yale Law School clinic students, the New York Supreme Court on Nov. 23 ordered the disclosure of emails between New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office and controversial former New York City Schools Chancellor Cathleen Black. Journalist Sergio Hernandez had requested the emails under the state Freedom of Information Law, but the mayor’s office denied the request, citing several exemptions, including one that allows agencies to withhold “inter-agency and intra-agency materials.” Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) represented Hernandez in court.

With Elizabeth Wolstein of Schlam Stone & Dolan LLP, MFIA argued that the mayor’s office should not have denied the request because Cathleen Black was not part of any governmental agency at the relevant time. Therefore none of the emails could be properly called “inter-agency” or “intra-agency” communications.

Justice Alice Schlesinger agreed. She also agreed that the emails could not be withheld as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, which was the second exemption the mayor’s office had sought. The privacy exception, she ruled, was intended to protect “information of a genuinely private nature only” and had to be balanced with the public interest in disclosure. Disclosure was of particular value to the public, she said, because Black lacked relevant experience for the post of schools chancellor and had to seek a waiver from the state education department in order to qualify:

“As Ms. Black did not meet the credentialing requirements for the all-important position of School Chancellor,” the justice wrote, “the public has the right to know what information about her employment history and qualifications was disclosed in the emails.” Justice Schlesinger ordered the mayor’s office to turn over the emails within fifteen days.

“This an important decision for open government rights in New York State,” said Jennifer Bishop ’12, one of MFIA’s student directors. “It shows the city and state government that they cannot stretch the meanings of FOI exemptions in order to deny requests for information that embarrasses them. Material that shines light on the hiring of an underqualified but powerful governmental appointee – though embarrassing – is exactly the kind of information that the public has a right to know.”

Along with Bishop, MFIA clinic students Isia Jasiewicz ’13 and Jeffrey Love ’12 worked on the case. Bishop appeared at oral argument on Hernandez’s behalf.

MFIA, an initiative of the Information Society Project and the Knight Law & Media Program at Yale Law School, was founded by Yale Law School students to defend the public’s right of access to government information and to support traditional and emerging forms of newsgathering. Through MFIA, Yale Law students work under the supervision of veteran media attorneys who volunteer their time pro bono on cases where private actors lack the resources to prosecute the public’s access rights.