June 16th, 2024

New Jersey adopts public records law critics say tightens access to documents

By The Associated Press on June 5, 2024.

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) – New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation on Wednesday overhauling access to the state’s public records, likely making it harder for the public and media to access some documents, according to critics.

Murphy, a Democrat, said he acknowledged the disappointment of social justice, labor and other groups that vociferously objected to the bill.

“If I believed that this bill would enable corruption in any way, I would unhesitatingly veto it,” Murphy said “After a thorough examination of the provisions of the bill, I am persuaded that the changes, viewed comprehensively, are relatively modest.”

The legislation alters the state’s Open Public Records Act, which the public and journalists regularly use to get documents from state and local governments, including budgets, agency receipts, public salaries, correspondence and other information not always easy to unearth.

The bill’s sponsors say they back transparency and want to help beleaguered clerks who cannot always handle a wave of requests, sometimes from commercial interests. The bill’s opponents argued that the measure will make it harder to get documents and comes at a time when Americans’ faith in institutions has been sliding. In a May 2023 survey from AP-NORC and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a majority of respondents said news stories reporting the facts facing the country or that include in-depth background and analysis are extremely or very helpful in understanding issues important to them.

One provision in the legislation permits officials to charge commercial interests as much as twice the cost of producing records. Other language authorizes agencies to sue requesters they accuse of interrupting “government function.” The new law also ends a requirement for towns to pay attorneys’ fees in court cases they lose over records requests.

The last provision could make it prohibitively expensive for members of the public and news reporters to challenge local and state governments in court, according to the bill’s opponents, including civil rights groups, the state’s press association and dozens of others who testified at committee hearings this year.

The Associated Press signed onto a letter by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists urging politicians to reject the legislation.

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