Dec 1st, 2023

The Surge in FOIL Requests and Schools as a Political Battleground

In recent months, New York school districts have been inundated with Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”) requests. Politically leaning organizations are increasingly sending FOIL requests to school districts, some of which may be fairly characterized as a fishing expedition. Some of these groups have enlisted law firms to send these requests on their behalf. The requests sometimes appear to be seeking a “smoking gun” to confirm that school districts are covertly advancing a particular political agenda.

In addition, school district residents have contributed to the surge of politically driven FOIL requests. In the age of social media, like-minded individuals have found a powerful platform to share information regarding FOIL, and their rights regarding the same. Online communities, forums, and dedicated groups have emerged where individuals exchange strategies related to navigating the intricacies of FOIL requests. When responsive records are received they can be easily and swiftly disseminated on social media and shared with news outlets, especially when records are provided in electronic form. FOIL requests can place New York school districts in the crossfire of complex political issues and contentious local issues involving students or staff.

Navigating FOIL Requests
The increased volume of FOIL requests presents New York school districts with unique challenges. FOIL was enacted to promote transparency and public accountability in government and public institutions. Yet, school districts, as the custodians of sensitive information, have an obligation to withhold confidential information.

Balancing the obligation for transparency with the legal duty to safeguard the privacy of students and staff can be a delicate and challenging task. To further exacerbate the issue, FOIL requests often are expansive in scope and result in a significant volume of responsive records requiring review. School districts may need to invest substantial time and resources in responding to these requests, diverting attention and resources away from the core mission of educating students.

Looking Ahead
Appropriately responding to FOIL requests requires a balanced approach that respects the principles of transparency while safeguarding confidential and sensitive information. Striking the right balance requires collaboration between administrators and, in certain instances, legal counsel. The surge in FOIL requests being received by New York school districts underscores the need for diligent and efficient record keeping, including the ability to easily search for and retrieve records. Also, the FOIL provision authorizing reimbursement of attorneys’ fees for parties that go to court and successfully challenge the sufficiency of a response to a request incentivizes school districts to meet applicable deadlines, and to appropriately disclose responsive records.

If you have any questions related to FOIL requests, recordkeeping practices, or your District’s obligations regarding the same, please contact me at 315-437-7600.


Thomas F. Barrett

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