NY gets more serious about protecting your right to know

We’re glad Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that strengthens New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

Previously, FOIL said a judge “may” make a state or local government agency pay your attorney fees and other litigation costs if you win a FOIL lawsuit. Now, the judge must make the agency pay your attorney fees if you win your suit “substantially” and if the judge finds that “the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access.”

If you win but not “substantially,” or if you win but the judge thinks the agency had legitimate reason to deny access, now the judge “may” make the agency pay your attorney fees.

That word “may” was a deterrent to suing over unfair denial of access to public records. Citizens trying to get the government to follow its own law didn’t know whether they could afford to sue. Knowing what a a risk they faced, government agencies sometimes decided to sit on documents they didn’t feel like digging up and sharing. Now plaintiffs and their lawyers can make their decisions on the strength of their cases rather than fear of financial ruin.

Both the state Senate and Assembly had passed the bill, and the governor signed it Wednesday. We thank them for doing the right thing. There is more to do — the Legislature has always wrongly exempted itself from FOIL, which ought to change — but this was a step in the right direction.