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04/27/78 ATTORNEY GENERAL v. SCHOOL COMMITTEE

April 27, 1978

ATTORNEY GENERAL
v.
SCHOOL COMMITTEE OF NORTHAMPTON



Hampshire. Civil action commenced in the Superior Court on February 7, 1977. The case was heard by Greaney, J. The Supreme Judicial Court granted a request for direct appellate review.

Hennessey, C.j., Quirico, Kaplan, Wilkins, & Abrams, JJ.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

School and School Committee, Open meeting, Public record. Open Meeting Law. Public Record. Privacy.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wilkins

A school committee violated G. L. c. 39, §§ 23A-23C, the open meeting law, by failing to disclose the names of candidates for the position of school superintendent who were considered by the committee at a public meeting. [129-130]

In an action against a school committee seeking a declaration that a list of applicants for a position of school superintendent was a public record within the meaning of G. L. c. 4, § 7, Twenty-sixth, where the committee made an adequate showing that some applicants' privacy might be invaded by disclosure of their names but did not show as to all applicants that disclosure would be an invasion of privacy, the Judge's decision to permit or deny disclosure on an applicant by applicant basis was consistent with the basic purpose of the public record law. [131-132]

In 1976, the superintendent of schools of Northampton submitted his resignation. The school committee advertised for applicants for the position, received more than ninety applications, and appointed a screening committee to select candidates to be interviewed by the full school committee. The screening committee submitted a list of sixteen candidates, describing them by number rather than by name. At a public meeting held on December 6, 1976, the school committee considered the list. The minutes of the meeting identify the candidates by number only. Subsequently, the list was reduced, by the committee or by withdrawal of candidates, to five "finalists." The school committee released the names of these five people, and interviewed each of them at a public meeting.

A reporter for a local newspaper had requested a list of all applicants and protested that the sixteen candidates considered on December 6 were disguised by referring to them by number and not by name. The school committee did not respond favorably to the reporter's request and protest. The reporter sought relief from the supervisor of public records, who, pursuant to G. L. c. 66, § 10 (b), determined that the list of applicants was "a public record as defined in G. L. c. 4, § 7, subsection 26." The school committee, however, voted to reaffirm its decision not to release the names, and the supervisor of public records asked the Attorney General to enforce his determination.

The Attorney General brought this action seeking a declaration that the list of applicants was a public record and that the failure of the school committee to disclose the names of the sixteen candidates considered at its meeting of December 6 was a violation of the open meeting law, G. L. c. 39, § 23B. A Judge of the Superior Court issued a detailed and carefully prepared memorandum in which he concluded that there was a violation of the open meeting law and that, therefore, the names of the sixteen candidates considered on December 6 should be disclosed by amendment of the minutes of that meeting. He determined further that the exemption from the definition of "public records" where the disclosure might constitute an invasion of privacy (G. L. c. 4, § 7, Twenty-sixth [ c ]) might be applicable to some or all of the more than ninety applicants. He noted that some of the applicants had indicated, for various reasons, that they wished their applications to be treated confidentially and that each should have an opportunity to explain why disclosure of his name might harm him. The Judge, therefore, concluded that the school committee should inquire of each applicant whose name had not been previously disclosed whether he consented to disclosure of his name. The names of those who consented were to be made available forthwith. As to the others, the Judge concluded that he would make individual in camera determinations of whether the applicant's privacy might be affected.

A judgment entered accordingly, from which the school committee has appealed. *fn1 We affirm the judgment.

1. We agree with the Judge that the school committee violated the open meeting law (G. L. c. 39, §§ 23A-23C) by failing to disclose the names of those candidates considered at its December 6 meeting. We further agree with that part of the judgment directing that the minutes of the school committee's meeting of December 6 be amended to disclose the names of the sixteen candidates then considered.

The December 6 meeting was an open meeting. No attempt was made to hold an executive session as permitted in certain circumstances under G. L. c. 39, § 23B. The school committee argues that it was entitled to proceed as it did in order to protect the interests of those candidates who wished to have the fact of their applications held in confidence. The committee relies on G. L. c. 39, § 24, as amended by St. 1970, c. 78, § 2, which states that the provisions of G. L. c. 39 "shall be in force only so far as they are not inconsistent with the express provisions of any general or special law." The committee points to G. L. c. 214, § 1B, inserted by St. 1974, c. 193, § 1, which provides that " person shall have a right against unreasonable, substantial or serious interference with his privacy." *fn2

We agree that, if a candidate had a statutory right to privacy in these circumstances, the school committee was not obliged to disclose his name. However, the school committee has not shown as to any of the sixteen candidates considered at the open meeting that disclosure of his name would have been an unreasonable, substantial, or serious interference with his privacy. The Judge concluded both that an applicant who reached that level of consideration would expect open and public Discussion of his professional competence and that the reasons for protecting the identity of such candidates were less substantial than the reasons for protecting the identity of applicants who had not reached that level of consideration. The school committee's argument that forced disclosure in such circumstances will discourage certain potential future applications for such positions has merit as a policy consideration for the Legislature, but it alone cannot justify barring disclosure where the record does not show that disclosure would impinge on any candidate's statutory right of privacy. *fn3

2. We turn to the question whether the list of applicants was a public record and whether the Judge properly determined to make individual in camera decisions concerning each applicant's request for anonymity. The Attorney General has not appealed and, therefore, we need not consider whether more complete disclosure was required than may result under the terms of the judgment. It may fairly be said that the school committee's appeal is premature because no judgment has yet been entered directing the disclosure of the name of any person whose privacy would be infringed. However, because the ...


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