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Society Helps Secure Open Records Victory in New Jersey


Bruce Brown
, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660 or bbrown@baker-hostetler.com
Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or across@mis.net

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists helped convince a Superior Court Judge in New Jersey that police reports – and 911 tapes – are public records under the state’s laws.

In the case of Asbury Park Press vs. Lakewood Township Police Department, the Society and two other organizations supported the Asbury Park Press’ legal action to seek the release of 911 tapes and police reports regarding a July 6, 2001, police chase in Lakewood Township, N.J. The New Jersey Attorney General appeared as an amicus on the other side of the issue.

Earlier this week, Judge Eugene D. Serpentelli found that the police reports and the 911 tapes are both public records. The judge said, however, that the 911 tapes will be disclosed immediately and the police reports will be confidential until any trial is completed.

The judge’s ruling was one of first impression in New Jersey and could help set precedents in the state and around the nation regarding open records issues for 911 tapes.

“We salute the judge for protecting the public’s right to see and hear these public records,” said SPJ President Al Cross, political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. “Such records often contain material of great public interest, and access to them is essential for the public and the news media to make sure public agencies are accountable for their actions.”

The case stems from a confrontation between the Lakewood Township police and Thomas Jacobs, who was driving through Lakewood Township in July 2001 and was stopped and forcibly removed by undercover police officers from his vehicle. Jacobs said in the incident, he was thrown to the ground, kicked, and punched.

Shortly after the confrontation, the Asbury Park Press filed legal action to obtain the 911 tapes and police reports regarding the incident.

“This kind of case is SPJ’s bread and butter,” said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment Legal Counsel at Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. “By fighting these actions in New Jersey, the Society has helped to make important precedent regarding access to a valuable journalist resource – 911 tapes.”

Other organizations signing the friend-of-the-court legal brief supporting the Asbury Park Press were The New Jersey Press Association and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. 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.


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