New Jersey approves public records overhaul, but critics say it tightens access to documents – Trentonian

FILE – New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy delivers his State of the State address during a joint session of the Legislature at the Statehouse, January 9, 2024, in Trenton, NJ. Murphy signed legislation on Wednesday, June 5, regulating access to the state public that critics say will likely make it more difficult for the public and media to access certain documents. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

TRENTON – New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a law Wednesday regulating access to the state’s public records, likely making it more difficult for the public and media to access some documents, according to critics.

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

“If I believed this bill would in any way enable corruption, I would veto it without hesitation,” Murphy said. “After a thorough examination of the provisions of the bill, I am confident that, when viewed comprehensively, the changes are relatively modest.”

The governor’s statement did little to convince critics of the measure.

“This is a dark day for our democracy – one that voters will not soon forget,” the League of Women Voters of New Jersey said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

The legislation amends the state’s Open Public Records Act, which the public and journalists regularly use to obtain state and local government documents, including budgets, agency receipts, public salaries, correspondence and other information that is not always easy to retrieve is.

The bill’s sponsors say they support transparency and want to help beleaguered clerks who can’t always handle a wave of requests, sometimes driven by commercial interests. Opponents of the bill argued that the measure will make it more difficult to obtain documents and comes at a time when Americans’ trust in institutions is declining. In a May 2023 survey by AP-NORC and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a majority of respondents said news stories that cover the facts facing the country or provide in-depth background and analysis are extremely or very helpful in helping understand issues that are important to them. .

Murphy nodded to this distrust in his statement, but ultimately said he thought the measure was an appropriate update to the legislation since it was introduced more than two decades ago.

“Perhaps the most troubling concern I have heard is that signing this bill will both enable corruption and erode trust in our democracy,” he said. “I understand that we are living in a moment where our democracy feels more fragile than ever.”

One provision in the legislation allows officials to charge commercial interests who can charge up to twice the cost of producing documents. In another language, agencies may sue applicants they accuse of interrupting the “function of government.” The new law also ends the obligation for cities to pay attorneys’ fees in lawsuits they lose because of records requests.

The latter 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 spoke about it during committee hearings testified. year.

Murphy pointed to a provision in the new law that such a fee structure could still occur, but only if a court finds that the public entity acted in bad faith, or intentionally or unreasonably denied documents. Critics of the measure wondered whether judges would be reluctant to declare that a public body acted in bad faith.

The Associated Press signed a letter from the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists calling on politicians to reject the legislation.

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