This past Thursday, September 3, 2015, a legal petition was filed at the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York. Brooke Schreier Ganz and ReclaimTheRecords.org [Petitioner] vs. New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DoRIS) [Respondent]. DoRIS is the parent organization of the New York City Municipal Archives. The petition was made under Article 78 of New York State’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). FOIL allows for public access to records created in the course of government agency business, provided the requestor is willing to pay fair costs for copies. This is believed to be the first time a genealogist has tried to use FOIL to force public vital records back into the public domain.
A petition is different than a lawsuit. A petition is a formal application made to a court in writing that requests action made to a governing body (such as a judge in this case), requesting action on a certain matter. A lawsuit cites wrongs and asks for damages. The right to petition is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, where the people were given the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances. (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/petition).
What the Request For Records Is About
Brooke Schreier Ganz is a genealogist and computer programmer living in California, but with New York roots. She is seeking access to copies of the 1908-1929 index to marriage licenses and affidavits, a series originally kept by the New York City Clerk’s office, now stored at the NYC Municipal Archives. (The dates on these records are usually a few weeks before the actual marriage took place.)
These 1908-1929 marriage licenses and affidavits are usually three pages long and have a wealth of genealogical value, with information not contained on the more commonly requested marriage certificate. The uniquely valuable information contained on these records includes: witnesses’ addresses, usually a more specific town of birth or region of birth (rather than just a country name) for the bride and groom, the bride’s occupation and occasionally the employer’s name and address for both bride and groom; and perhaps most importantly has three different sets of handwriting to help those of us who had records that were semi-illegible or has “creative spelling”.
This is not the same data set as the better-known 1800’s-1937 New York City Health Department marriage certificates and their associated “Brides Index” and “Grooms Index” which is already in the public domain.
Brooke made a FOIL request for access to these indices in early January 2015. After some back-and-forth e-mails with the Archives’ FOIL officer, her request was initially approved by the Archives on official letterhead. A few weeks later, she emailed the Archives to ask for an invoice to get the ball rolling on the microfilm copying. That was when the Municipal Archives changed their minds and denied her request, saying the records are not subject under FOIL. At no time did the Archives ever cite any legal reasoning for denying access to the indices under FOIL. They are not a privacy concern both because of their age and because of 1993 case law in New York State concerning the open publication of marriage indices.
Brooke then brought her plight to the New York State Commission on Open Government (COOG) and spoke with Robert Freeman, COOG’s executive director. COOG is a FOIL watchdog organization, and is funded by New York specifically to look into FOIL questions raised by the public and to bring concerns to the state legislature. Freeman confirmed that her FOIL request was legally reasonable and helped her draft her FOIL appeal letter. The Municipal Archives then denied her appeal.
COOG then issued an “Advisory Opinion” a letter concerning the facts of the request, which you can read here: https://tinyurl.com/RTR-COOG.
Brooke realized to continue to pursue this she would need legal counsel and file an Article 78 Petition. She hired the firm Rankin and Taylor in NYC. This firm specializes in FOIL lawsuits petitions and has a history of winning suits including winning against the NY City Department of Corrections in the Hart Island (NYC) litigation for public access to the handwritten ledgers detailing the names of people buried on Hart Island (800,000 people buried there since 1869—with 1,500 added yearly).
What Will Happen With the Data If Brooke Wins the Petition
Brooke wants to make this material available to the public at no cost online through the Internet Archive (archive.org) and other genealogical organizations who might want it. The microfilm copies will eventually be donated to the New York Public Library.
She also plans to do further FOIL requests for data access with other city and state archives. Her next one will likely be with the NYC Clerk’s Office for the post-1937-to-present NYC marriage index, which has never been available to the public before in any form. To manage this Petition and future requests, she recently founded the not-for-profit advocacy group ReclaimtheRecords.org.
You are encouraged to sign up on the website to be kept updated: http://reclaimtherecords.org./
To see what is planned for other data requests go to the “to do list” at http://www.reclaimtherecords.org/to-do/
More content, including a blog with updates, will be added to the website in the near future.
What You Can Do In Your Locale to Open Records
Others are encouraged to use their state Freedom of Information laws to open records to the public that are of genealogical value. Different jurisdictions’ FOI laws can help us access otherwise unavailable records which can then be placed on the internet. At least for the NYC records they are not digitized so microfilms have to be copied.
If you have any questions, please contact Brooke, she would love to talk with you. Her email for questions about this case and future FOIL cases is firstname.lastname@example.org