Freedom of information laws apply to college decision-making bodies, court rules

NEW YORK — New York’s highest court ruled on Nov. 17 that decision-making bodies at public colleges are required to abide by the state’s freedom of information laws.

The Court of Appeals of New York ruled that the College Senate at Hostos Community College is subject to open meetings and open records laws, according to the decision. The College Senate is a body composed of faculty, students and administrators. The decision compared Hostos’ College Senate with faculty councils at other schools.

Because the College Senate has the power to formulate new policy recommendations and revise existing policies in areas such as admissions and degree requirements, the court said it must comply with the laws.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, called the ruling a victory. The committee is a state agency charged with advising and overseeing New York’s open government laws.

"Students clearly will have the right to attend meetings they were thrown out of in the past," Freeman said.

The court decision clarifies the state’s freedom of information laws, Freeman said.

"In the confines of a college campus, if an entity plays a critical part in the decision making process, it is required to comply with open meeting laws, even if they don’t make the final decision," Freeman said.

The case began in 2001 when two students were denied access to two different College Senate meetings at Hostos Community College, a school in the City University of New York system. One student wanted to attend a meeting where the senate voted by secret ballot to change the curriculum and another wanted to present a petition regarding a student protest, according to the decision.

In addition to ruling that the Senate was wrong to deny the students access to the meeting, the court further ruled that voting by secret ballot is in violation of New York’s Freedom of Information Law. According to the law, an agency must have a record of how its members vote.

"The requisite record of the final vote of each member would be impossible were the final vote of each member anonymous or secret. Consequently… voting by the College Senate and Executive Committee may not be conducted by secret ballot," according to the court decision.

by Kim Peterson, SPLC staff writer

  • Case: Perez, et al. v. City Univ. of N.Y., et al., Nos. 1, 159, 2005 WL 209117 (N.Y. Nov. 17, 2005)