Obtaining public records

(The following text comes from “Your Right to Know,” a publication of New York state’s Committee on Open Government.)

Protection of privacy

One of the exceptions to rights of access referenced earlier states that records may be withheld when disclosure would result in “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” (87(2)(b)).

Unless otherwise deniable, disclosure shall not be construed to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy when identifying details are deleted, when the person to whom a record pertains consents in writing to disclosure, or when upon presenting reasonable proof of identity, a person seeks access to records pertaining to him or herself.

When a request is made for records that constitute a list of names and home addresses or its equivalent, the agency is permitted to require that the applicant certify that such list will not be used for solicitation or fund-raising purposes and will not sell, give or otherwise make available such lists to any other person for the purpose of allowing that person to use such list for solicitation or fund-raising purposes (89(3)(a)).

Since 2010, agencies have been prohibited from intentionally releasing social security numbers to the public (96-a).

How to Obtain Records

Subject matter list

As noted earlier, each agency must maintain a “subject matter list” (87(3)(c)). The list is not a compilation of every record an agency has in its possession, but rather is a list of the subjects or file categories under which records are kept. It must make reference to all records in possession of an agency, whether or not the records are available. You have a right to know the kinds of records agencies maintain.

The subject matter list must be compiled in sufficient detail to permit you to identify the file category of the records sought, and it must be updated annually. Each state agency is required to post its subject matter list online. An alternative to and often a substitute for a subject matter list is a records retention schedule. Schedules regarding state and local government outside of New York City are prepared by the State Archives; those applicable in New York City are prepared by the NYC Department of Records and Information Services.


Each agency must adopt standards based upon general regulations issued by the Committee. These procedures describe how you can inspect and copy records. The Committee’s regulations and a model designed to enable agencies to easily comply are available on the Committee’s website. See Regulations of the Committee on Open Government and Model Rules for Agencies.

Designation of records access officer

Under the Committee’s regulations, each agency must appoint one or more persons as records access officer. The records access officer has the duty of coordinating an agency’s response to public requests for records in a timely fashion. In addition, the records access officer is responsible for ensuring that agency personnel assist in identifying records sought, make the records promptly available or deny access in writing, provide copies of records or permit you to make copies, certifying that a copy is a true copy and, if the records cannot be found, certify either that the agency does not have possession of the requested records or that the agency does have the records, but they cannot be found after diligent search.

The regulations also state that the public shall continue to have access to records through officials who have been authorized previously to make information available.

Requests for records

An agency may ask you to make your request in writing. See Sample Request for Records. The law requires you to “reasonably describe” the record in which you are interested ( 89(3)(a)). Whether a request reasonably describes records often relates to the nature of an agency’s filing or recordkeeping system. If records are kept alphabetically, a request for records involving an event occurring on a certain date might not reasonably describe the records. Locating the records in that situation might involve a search for the needle in the haystack, and an agency is not required to engage in that degree of effort. The responsibility of identifying and locating records sought rests to an extent upon the agency. If possible, you should supply dates, titles, file designations, or any other information that will help agency staff to locate requested records, and it may be worthwhile to find out how an agency keeps the records of your interest (i.e., alphabetically, chronologically or by location) so that a proper request can be made.

The law also provides that agencies must accept requests and transmit records requested via email when they have the ability to do so.

Within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, the agency must make the record available, deny access in writing giving the reasons for denial, or furnish a written acknowledgment of receipt of the request and a statement of the approximate date when the request will be granted or denied, which must be reasonable in consideration of attendant circumstances, such as the volume or complexity of the request. The approximate date ordinarily cannot exceed 20 business days from the date of the acknowledgment of the receipt of a request. If it is determined that more than 20 business days will be needed to grant a request in whole or in part, the agency’s acknowledgment must explain the reason and provide a specific date within which it will grant a request in whole or in part. When a response is delayed beyond 20 business days, it must be reasonable in relation to the circumstances of the request.

If the agency fails to abide by any of the requirements concerning the time within which it must respond to a request, the request is deemed denied, and the person seeking the records may appeal the denial. For more information, see Explanation of Time Limits for Responding to Requests.


Copies of records must be made available on request. Except when a different fee is prescribed by statute (an act of the State Legislature), an agency may not charge for inspection, certification or search for records, or charge in excess of 25 cents per photocopy up to 9 by 14 inches (87(1)(b)(iii)). Fees for copies of other records may be charged based upon the actual cost of reproduction. There may be no basis to charge for copies of records that are transmitted electronically; however, when requesting electronic data, there are occasions when the agency can charge for employee time spent preparing the electronic data. For more information see 2008 News/Fees for Electronic Information.

Denial of access and appeal

Unless a denial of a request occurs due to a failure to respond in a timely manner, a denial of access must be in writing, stating the reason for the denial and advising you of your right to appeal to the head or governing body of the agency or the person designated to determine appeals by the head or governing body of the agency. You may appeal within 30 days of a denial.

Upon receipt of the appeal, the agency head, governing body or appeals officer has 10 business days to fully explain in writing the reasons for further denial of access or to provide access to the records. Copies of appeals and the determinations thereon must be sent by the agency to the Committee on Open Government (89(4)(a)). A failure to determine an appeal within 10 business days of its receipt is considered a denial of the appeal.

You may seek judicial review of a final agency denial by means of a proceeding initiated under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. When a denial is based on an exception to rights of access, the agency has the burden of proving that the record sought falls within the exception (89(4)(b)).

The Freedom of Information Law permits a court, in its discretion, to award reasonable attorney’s fees to a person denied access to records. To do so, a court must find that the person denied access “substantially prevailed”, and either that the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access or that it failed to comply with the time limits for responding to a request or an appeal.

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