updated 3/24/2005 6:48:18 PM ET 2005-03-24T23:48:18

New York City’s Fire Department must release audiotapes and transcripts of interviews conducted with firefighters who responded to the 2001 terrorist attacks, but it can withhold portions that could cause serious pain or embarrassment, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.

The decision by the Court of Appeals was part of a three-pronged ruling that also determined what portions of 911 calls and dispatch communications must be disclosed by the city.

The ruling came in response to a Freedom of Information request by The New York Times. The newspaper wanted to examine tapes of 911 calls made from the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as interviews later conducted with firefighters for an oral history of the tragedy.

Case-by-case decisions on pain, embarrassment
Under the decision, the Fire Department would have to return to the state’s trial-level court and argue on a case-by-case basis that specific statements by firefighters interviewed would cause pain or embarrassment.

Times counsel David McCraw said the newspaper was pleased with the ruling.

Neither McCraw nor New York City officials could say when the information would be made available.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed a lower-court decision that Fire Department dispatches consisting of factual statements or instructions by personnel should be disclosed. But the high court said any opinions or recommendations expressed during those dispatch calls should be edited out.

No 911 calls from victims
The court also said that only 911 calls from department personnel, and not victims, could be disclosed.

Judge Robert S. Smith said that while “the public has a legitimate interest in knowing how well or poorly the 911 system performed that day ... the public interest in the words of 911 callers is outweighed by the interest in privacy of those family members and callers who prefer that those words remain private.”

The court also rejected arguments that such privacy protections do not apply to those killed. “We think this argument contradicts the common understanding of the word ‘privacy,”’ particularly when it comes to the families of the dead, Smith wrote.

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