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Home > SPJ News > SPJ joins amicus brief in New Jersey public records case

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SPJ joins amicus brief in New Jersey public records case


9/29/2015


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Sept. 29, 2015

Contacts:
Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President, 804-873-1893, pfletcher.spj@gmail.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the New Jersey Press Association in the public records case North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst.

The brief was filed to the New Jersey Supreme Court in response to law enforcement documents relating to the fatal shooting by police of a 23-year-old man – Kashad Ashford -- in September 2014. The case is on appeal from a lower court ruling allowing the government to withhold the records.

“We want to emphasize the importance of access to law enforcement records, and address the lower court’s mystifying conclusion that a government agency’s press release was an adequate substitute for releasing the records,” said Paul Fletcher, SPJ national president.

As members and representatives of the news media and transparency advocates, amici frequently rely on state and federal freedom of information laws, including New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA), to gather information about the government and report on matters of public concern. Amici, thus have a strong interest in ensuring that such laws are interpreted by courts in a manner that facilitates public access to government records and assures government accountability.

At issue in this appeal is the scope of the “criminal investigatory records” exception and the “ongoing investigations” exemption of New Jersey’s OPRA.

“An integral part many state public records laws – including New Jersey’s -- is a provision requiring that any restriction on public access be interpreted narrowly and lean in favor of the public’s right of access,” Fletcher said. “A press release does not suffice in the release of government records.”

Permitting a public agency to fulfill its obligations by issuing a press release, without any opportunity for the press or the public to examine the underlying government records is in direct contradiction to OPRA’s ‘core concern of transparency in government,’” the brief states.

Press and public access to records is particularly important with respect to Ashford’s death, the groups argue in the brief. The State’s press release and certifications by law enforcement officials present inconsistent accounts of the events that directly led to this fatal shooting. Resolution of these inconsistencies is crucial to determining whether the police had a reasonable belief of imminent danger. Accordingly, public access to the records concerning this event is essential if the public is to know whether the actions taken by law enforcement personnel in this case were or were not appropriate.

Access to public records has proved invaluable to recent reporting on law enforcement activity that has, in turn, led to reform. For example, last year, The Baltimore Sun published a series of articles about police misconduct, including one report based on a six-month investigation of excessive force lawsuits and settlements, and another describing an internal audit of the police disciplinary process, which the paper obtained through an open records request.

“If the Appellate Court decision holds, law enforcement agencies in New Jersey will be insulated from public scrutiny, and the public will have limited opportunity to oversee and evaluate this important government activity,” the brief concludes.

The First Amendment guarantees the press and the public a right of access to criminal trials, including pretrial proceedings, and documents submitted in connection with them. In its role as a free press and free speech advocate, SPJ initiates and joins amicus briefs to support First Amendment and open records cases.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.

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