NJ Gov. Murphy signs law curbing access to public records

A bill critics say was designed to stifle public access to New Jersey government records was signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Phil Murphy.

The law restructures the state’s Open Public Records Act, allowing officials to increase the cost of obtaining public records and sue record requesters for interrupting “government function.”

Additionally, government agencies that deny access to records, but are then successfully sued and forced to turn them over, will no longer have to pay the requesters’ legal fees. That change could make it extremely expensive — borderline impossible for many — to sue for access to records.

“It’s shameful that despite overwhelming concerns from their constituents, lawmakers fast-tracked, and the governor signed, a bill that severely restricts access to government records and limits the public’s ability to hold elected officials accountable,” said Sarah Fajardo, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Murphy, a Democrat, defended his decision to sign the bill into law. He claimed it was aimed at improving government function and easing the burden on government clerks, not negating transparency and greasing the skids for corruption.

“If I believed that this bill would enable corruption in any way, I would unhesitatingly veto it,” he said in a statement.

New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act was introduced in 2002 and is routinely used by journalists and other groups to obtain government documents that are not readily available.

According to the ACLU, 81% of New Jersey voters disagreed with the plans to change the law, which were first introduced in March.

“We know that voters will have the last word at the ballot box next year — and maybe then Legislators will remember who they are meant to serve,” Fajardo said.