If disclosing information is going to invade a person’s privacy and jeopardize the public’s safety, Putnam County officials are willing to stand together and fight the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
At a press conference held on Thursday, Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant officially denied the FOIL request made by The Journal News to release the names and addresses of pistol licensees in the county.
The Journal News, a Gannett-owned publication, on Dec. 23 posted a map on its website that revealed the names and addresses of homeowners with pistol permits in Westchester and Rockland counties. Many critics assailed the newspaper for publishing the list, which included the names of judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and domestic violence survivors.
The Journal News has also been working to obtain and publish records from Putnam County.
“I am a man who follows the rule of law,” said Sant who has been with the county clerk’s office since 1978. “We are not taking about the rule of law; we are talking about endangering our citizens…I am not refusing because I wanted to be some sort of a hell start. I am refusing because I could not live with myself if one of my pistol permit holders in Putnam County had to be put in a dangerous situation.”
In 27 years as the county’s FOIL officer, this is the first time Sant has outright rejected a FOIL request.
County Executive MaryEllen Odell enthusiastically supported Sant’s decision.
“I want the people of Putnam County to know that we believe that the release of this information would create an unprecedented public safety issue,” said Odell. “This is not about gun control or gun ownership in the aftermath of Newtown, Conn… This issue is strictly about the privacy and safety for our law abiding citizens. Privacy is paramount in this instance as it relates to public safety.”
Odell stated that the county was ready to stand by Sant’s decision to “the very end, wherever that process takes us.”
Joining Odell in support were Sheriff Don Smith, District Attorney Adam Levy and many sitting and former county legislators.
Additionally, state Senator Greg Ball (R-Patterson) and Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown), both of whom represent a portion of Putnam County, supported the move.
“This was a slap in the face for law-abiding citizens; tens of thousands of people who did nothing wrong,” said Ball. “I will fight with you until hell freezes over and then we continue on the ice because we are going to hold this editorial board accountable.”
Ball urged for people to cancel their subscriptions to The Journal News.
“Let’s make sure that no paper does this again,” he said.
“The Journal News has come up with the perfect map for perpetrators, stalker and criminals and they have yet to tell us a cogent reason why, except for the fact that they can,” said Katz. “I am sorry; that is unacceptable. We are now at the intersection of where the law meets morality and of what is right and wrong.
Ball, who has called for The Journal News to remove the map it posted on its website (LoHud.com), will introduce legislation in the state Senate to prevent what he refers to as a “violation of privacy.”
Ball said that he will be introducing legislation in the state senate that would protect lawful gun owners from being targeted by thieves for firearm burglaries and eliminate a database criminals could use to extort their identity-theft victims.
He sponsored a similar sponsored legislation while he was in the Assembly.
Journal News President and Publisher Janet Hasson released a statement on Tuesday defending the publication.
“We believe the law is clear that this is public information and the residents of Putnam County are entitled to see it,” she said. “We’re troubled that county officials have apparently switched their position since we first requested the information.”
Under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) “government [collected information] is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government.”
However, FOIL does permit an agency the right to deny access to records or portions of records if the information could, if disclosed, “endanger the life or safety of any person,” among other exemptions.
New York State Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert J. Freeman said that this circumstance does not fall under the umbrella of exempted information.
“In my opinion the law is crystal clear; there is a section of the state’s penal law which deals specifically with licenses to carry firearms,” said Freeman. “The laws say the name and address of any person whom any application has been granted shall be a public record. In this instance if Putnam County is going to comply with the law it must release the names addresses of the licensees in that county.”
With Sant rejecting the FOIL request, The Journal News now has the right to appeal the decision.
“My assumption is that it would go to the county executive or someone designated by the county executive,” Freeman said. “If it is rejected again one has the right to challenge that in court.”
If The Journal News initiated litigation, it would be heard in state Supreme Court in Putnam County.
There are numerous organizations that have contested FOIL decisions In American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Siebert, (1981) ABC News was granted access to names and business addresses of the principals of check cashing businesses licensed by the banking department; other aspects of license applications, such as residence addresses, were denied on the basis that providing the information would endanger the lives and safety of applicants and their families.
Addresses were also denied in the case of Joint Industry Board of Electrical Industry v. Nolan (1990). The petitioner requested home addresses of employees of contractors employed by the New York City Board of Education. The court upheld the denial, finding that “the interest of the contractors’ employees in avoiding a substantial invasion of their privacy is favored over the minimal public interest involved in the disclosure of their home addresses” and that disclosure of home addresses “facilitates entry into an individual’s private life” and that case law interpreting the federal Freedom of Information Act is “unavailing.”
The state Department of Health attempted to deny Newsday access to the names of cardiac surgeons in a 1991 case between the two parties. The agency claimed that it rejected the inquiry as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. The court held that the names of surgeons must be disclosed, stating that the public interest outweighed privacy interest on the part of a surgeon.
The Rockland Times reported on Tuesday that The Journal News has hired armed security guards from New City-based RGA Investigations to man the newspaper’s Rockland County headquarters at 1 Crosfield Ave. in West Nyack.