Frustrated by a lack of response to a request to review documents relating to allegations or complaints of religious discrimination, The Jewish Press has filed a lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education, charging the agency with violating the state’s Freedom of Information laws.
Attorney Joseph Aron of Aron Law which filed the petition said that the issue arose after The Jewish Press submitted approximately two dozen FOIL requests to various educational institutions as part of its research for an article on anti-semitism in academia.
“We had been seeing multiple news stories on this topic, with both teachers and students feeling that they had been subjected to religious discrimination,” Aron told VIN News. “It was kids who felt like they were getting a lower grade if they expressed their views on Israel. Teachers who had trouble leaving early for Shabbos.”
Aron said that the newspaper received responses from the many entities they had petitioned, including every CUNY school and the state and city human resources commissions, with one notable exception: the DOE.
According to the petition, filed Monday in Brooklyn State Supreme Court, The Jewish Press filed a FOIL request asking for copies of any complaints filed from 2013 to 2017 against the DOE on May 9th 2017. The initial response from the Department of Education, a copy of which was obtained by VIN News, was issued on May 16th, assigning a reference number to the FOIL request and saying that a response should be forthcoming by June 14th.
By state law, FOIL requests must be responded to within five business days and in cases where more time is needed, access or denials are typically granted within 20 business days of the original request. But according to Aron, the request remains unfulfilled ten months later, with the DOE claiming that the delays are due to the complexity of the request and the volume of records involved.
“Every month we received another letter saying that they needed more time,” said Aron.
Last month, The Jewish Press contacted the Department of Education again, saying that the ten months of postponements constituted an effective denial of the FOIL request, and asked that the denial be appealed. But after receiving a letter from the DOE on February 28th saying that the requested information would be made available in mid-April, a second communication sent two days later denied the entire request, prompting The Jewish Press to pursue legal action.
Jewish Press general manager Jerry Greenwald said that he was disappointed by the lack of transparency at the DOE.
“We should not have had to go to court to obtain records that we are entitled to,” said Greenwald. “What should have taken 20 days is now taking 10 months. In the future, we hope The Jewish Press can easily obtain information from New York City that is important to our readers.”
The Jewish Press is asking the court to provide it with immediate access to the requested records as well as court costs and any further relief deemed “just and proper.”
Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State’s Committee for Open Government which offers guidance on FOIL requests said that city agencies often drag their heels on FOIL requests, hoping that the lengthy delays will discourage petitioners from going after the information they seek.
“Agencies bank on the likelihood that no one will sue then,” said Freeman.
Freeman said that he hopes that recent changes to the FOIL laws will encourage greater compliance.
The Jewish Press is not the first entity to sue the DOE for refusing to comply with a FOIL request. According to The New York Post, a member of a community education board in Harlem sued the agency in 2016 for taking more than a year to comply with what she termed a “minor” request. Two non-profits also sued the DOE in 2011, reported The Daily News, charging the agency with a pattern of failing to respond to FOIL requests in a timely fashion.