Note: This page covers information specific to New York. For general information concerning access to government records see the Access to Government Records section of this guide.
You have a statutory right to inspect New York's public records using the state's Freedom of Information Law ("FOIL"). See Sections 84 to 90 of the New York Public Officers Law ("N.Y. Pub. Off. Law") which contains no limitations on which members of the public can request records.
What Records Are Covered in New York
What Government Bodies Are Covered
You can inspect the public records of any New York agency. An agency is defined as any "state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity." N.Y. Pub. Off. Law §§ 86(3)-87. If you want to access the records of the state judiciary or the state legislature, refer to Access to Government Meetings in New York and New York State Court Records for more information.
What Types of Records Can Be Requested
In general, you can inspect the records of all New York agencies as defined above. The term "record" refers to "any information kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, with or for an agency . . . in any physical form." N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 86(4). Additionally, each agency is required to maintain: (1) records on agency member votes, (2) the name, public office address, title and salary of every officer or employee of the agency, and (3) a subject matter list that list details the subject categories under which records are kept. See N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 87(3).
A records access manager (the government officer who coordinates an agency's response to public requests for records) may refuse disclosure of the requested records if one or more of the following statutory exemptions applies:
- information that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy
- records exempted under another statute
- if disclosed would interfere with bid or contract awards or union negotiations
- trade secrets, commercial, or financial information
- materials compiled for law enforcement purposes which, if disclosed, would: interfere with law enforcement investigations or court proceedings; deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication; identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation; or reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures (except routine techniques and procedures)
- information that could endanger the life or safety of any person
- inter- or intra-agency material that is advisory, consultative, or deliberative in nature
- test questions and answers, and scoring keys used to develop, administer or score a test before the test is given
- technical or administrative information that may jeopardize the agency's computer security
- photographs, microphotographs, videotape or other recorded images prepared under N.Y. Veh. & Traf. § 1111-a (repealed Dec. 1, 2009 under L.1988, c. 746, § 17)
For more information about the exemptions as they appear in the statute, refer to N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 87(2). Additionally, you should also consult the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: New York, and the New York Committee on Open Government's publication Your Right to Know to better understand the exemptions for the New York FOIL.
How to Request Records in New York
There is no uniform procedure for you to follow in requesting records from New York agencies because each agency has its own procedures for handling records requests. See N.Y. Pub. Off. Law §§ 87.1(b), 88.1. You are should contact the agency whose records you desire to find out what method they use for making a request. You also have two other resources to help you create your request: (1) the New York Committee on Open Government has placed a sample letter for a records request on its informational site Your Right to know, and (2) the Student Press Law Center has a unique letter generator that can help you generate an appropriate request.
The records access manager has five days to refuse or comply with your request. See N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 89.3(a). If you want a copy of the records, you may need to pay a fee. The agency may charge you a fee of $0.25 per page, unless otherwise prescribed by statute. N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 87(1)(b)(iii). Fees for copies of records in other formats may be charged based upon the actual cost of reproduction. Note that the law only applies to existing documents. The law does not require a FOIA custodian to create a record in response to your request.
What Are Your Remedies in New York
You have several options open to you should the records access manager deny your request. First, try to work with the records access manager. If the agency is relying on an exemption, ask the records access manager to release the nonexempt portions of the record with the exempt portions removed or redacted.
If you are unable to make headway with the records access manager and your records request remains denied, you have thirty days to appeal to the head of the agency. The agency has ten days to comply with your request, or explain their denial in writing. See N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 89.4(a). If you receive a denial at this point (including if the agency does not respond), you can file a lawsuit with the New York state court to enforce compliance with your request. In some cases the court may award you attorney's fees. See N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 89.4(b)-(c). Refer to our section on Finding Legal Help for more information on how to get legal assistance to help you assess the merits of a potential lawsuit against the government entity.