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Court Rules in Favor of First Amendment Clinic Client "The City" on Access to Yeshiva Investigation Records

On April 28, 2023, Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic secured a ruling from a New York County Supreme Court judge in favor of its client The City, granting the news outlet access to New York City Department of Education records from its investigation into twenty-six Hasidic schools and awarding attorney’s fees and costs.

In advance of its deadline to comply with Justice Eric Schumacher’s order to release redacted copies of the records, counsel for the DOE filed a notice of intent to seek leave to appeal the decision, which would stall enforcement of the court’s order to release records to the public concerning the extent to which certain Hasidic schools are providing their students a basic secular education.

“The court’s ruling vindicates New Yorkers’ right to know whether students are receiving an adequate education under the law,” says Richard Kim, editor in chief of The City. “It’s been almost eight years since the DOE began this probe. A student in first grade at the time would now be in high school. It’s beyond time for the city to release their findings.”

Yoav Gonen, senior reporter for The City, requested the records at issue in January 2020 after the DOE sent letters to 28 yeshivas concerning a long-running investigation into whether the schools were providing an education substantially equivalent to public schools. The investigation stemmed from a 2015 complaint filed by former students and parents alleging that the schools were failing their students by providing education of a quality well below the State’s substantial equivalence requirement for nonpublic schools. After the DOE released two letters finding that those schools did provide a substantially equivalent education and withheld the rest, clinic attorneys Ava Lubell and Heather Murray filed suit on behalf of The City and Gonen in April 2021.

At the oral argument in April 2023, the court rejected the DOE’s argument that releasing the letters would interfere with an ongoing investigation, finding instead “that there is little basis for the allegation that schools would likely stop cooperating with respondent, in light of the fact that a recalcitrant school would then certainly face a final decision that it is not providing the legally required education to its students. The so-called chilling effect is minimal, if not existent.” After the court pointedly asked the DOE whether it would release the letters in full on June 30, 2023—the deadline the State Department of Education has imposed on the DOE to issue detailed determinations or recommendations with respect to these schools—the court then issued an order requiring the DOE to first release redacted versions of the records in May and then unredacted letters by July 31, 2023.

“Despite the DOE’s efforts to continue to keep its investigation under wraps,” says Kim, “we will continue to doggedly cover this investigation and call on the Adams administration to publicly release the reports the DOE is mandated to provide to the state on June 30.”

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