any person who, pursuant to this section, is permitted to inspect any report or return or to whom a copy, an abstract or a portion of any report or return is furnished, or to whom any information contained in any report or return is furnished, to divulge or make known in any manner the amount of income or any particulars set forth or disclosed in any report or return required under this article.
After the New York Times published the 1995 tax returns of Donald Trump, Callum Borchers at the Washington post and others have said this might be illegal. Trump’s lawyer claimed that publishing it was illegal without Trump’s consent, and of course he threatened “prompt initiation of appropriate legal action.” Although the person who gave it to the Times may have broken the law, it is unlikely that the Times itself did.).
Adding to the confusion, during a panel discussion at Harvard Law School in mid-September, Bob Woodward, associate editor of the Washington Post, and Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, presciently discussed whether they would publish Trump’s tax returns if they got ahold of them. “You know what your lawyers would tell you,” Woodward said, ”If you publish them, you go to jail.” Baquet said he would “seriously fight to publish [Trump’s] tax returns..
For federal tax returns, there is a specific federal statute that prohibits publishing without consent (26 U.S.C. § 7213(a)(3)). But the Times only published the first page of the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut tax returns (not the federal tax returns) so that statute would not apply.
Of those states, only New York has a privacy statute that could be construed to apply to non-government employees/contractors like the New York Times. This is a close call Not to make your brain atrophy from an overdose of legalese, but the New York statute says that “any person who, pursuant to this section, is permitted to inspect any report or return or to whom a copy, an abstract or a portion of any report or return is furnished, or to whom any information contained in any report or return is furnished, to divulge or make known in any manner the amount of income or any particulars set forth or disclosed in any report or return required under this article.” This bit of printed chloroform is a convoluted statute (welcome the study of law), but the fairest reading is that the phrase “pursuant to this section”—i.e., the entire section describing the “general powers of the tax commission”—applies only to those who are “permitted to inspect any report or return” under New York law, such as some government contractors. The other entities, such as those “to whom a copy, an abstract or a portion of any return is furnished,” can be anyone, even those who obtained a return not “pursuant to this section.”
So, let’s assume that what the New York Times did was against the law. A more interesting question is: would the New York statute be constitutional under the First Amendment? After all, prohibiting someone from divulging information to the public is clearly a regulation of speech.
The most relevant case would be Bartnicki v. Vopper from 2001. That case dealt with a radio commentator who broadcast a tape of an illegally recorded conversation between a chief union negotiator and a union president. The Supreme Court held that the federal statute, which prohibited people from “willfully disclosing the contents” of any communication that the person knew or had reason to know “was obtained through an illegal interception.” The Court struck the statute down because it “implicates the core purposes of the First Amendment because it imposes sanctions on the publication of truthful information of public concern.” Publishing crucial and truthful information about a presidential candidate a month before the election certainly implicated matters of “public concern.”
The New York law makes it illegal to merely “divulge or make known” tax return information, and thus it is broader than laws that prohibit someone from releasing a tax return that he knows (or has reason to know) was obtained illegally. Therefore, it seems likely that the law would be struck down as unconstitutional.