Newark School District Agrees to Release Records to Parents Group

April 14, 2014
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Newark Public Schools shared interim reports on schools with outside organization but refused to give access to parents’ group and other members of public

NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ has reached a successful settlement on behalf of a Newark parents’ group whose request for records from the Newark Public Schools was denied by the district. The Secondary Parents Council (SPC) filed suit on Nov. 7, 2013, after Newark Public Schools denied them records that it had previously shared with a private education foundation, the Foundation for Newark’s Future. Under the agreement, SPC will receive the records it requested.

“Our open government laws guarantee access for the public, not just for members of the public who can pay for the privilege,” said Laura Baker, president emeritus of SPC. “Investing in your child’s future shouldn’t require actual payment, but the Foundation for Newark’s Future had special access to public records precisely because of its financial relationship to the schools. We’re pleased to finally be able to see these records, but it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get Newark Public Schools to follow the state’s transparency laws.”

The settlement, signed on April 9, stipulates that SPC, and by extension the rest of the public, have access to the interim reports previously shared with the Foundation for Newark’s Future through email attachments.

The Newark Public Schools rejected SPC’s request for records, claiming the documents were deliberative. However, the ACLU-NJ contended that, under the state’s Open Public Records Act, the school district waived any right to conceal the documents from the public when it shared the documents with the Foundation for Newark’s Future.

“While the records at issue may have been confidential intra-agency records at some point, once a government agency willingly discloses records to an outside group, the agency waives any confidentiality to which they may have been entitled,” stated Lawrence Reicher of Dechert, LLP, who represented SPC on behalf of the ACLU-NJ.

The interim reports contained school performance data on testing and information related to the teachers’ contract with the district.

“When it comes to public records, officials don’t get to choose which members of the public can have access and which can’t,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “A document is either public or not. The administration cannot give favored groups access to records and then claim those records are confidential when groups outside the inner circle request the same documents.”

This lawsuit is one of many concerning transparency with regard to partnerships between the Newark Public Schools and private organizations, much of it stemming from the donation pledged by Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg in 2010.

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ACLU-NJ Goes to NJ Supreme Court to Defend Rap Lyrics as Free Speech

April 9, 2014
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TRENTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) appeared before the New Jersey Supreme Court today to argue that an amateur rapper’s rap lyrics should not have been used as evidence against him in a crime.

Rap music, argued Ezra Rosenberg, the ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney who argued the case before the court, is a genre that originated in reaction to the mass incarceration of young black males in United States.

“Whether gagsta rap is an act of ideological insubordination, or an embrace of the stigma of criminality, or simply a cry against the hopelessness of the human condition in our inner cities, it would seem to b a cruelly ironic contribution to the vicious cycle of mass incarceration for this particular art form to be used as a mechanism to lead to further convictions,” Rosenberg said. “At a minimum, more caution is called for.”

In November 2005, police pulled over Vonte Skinner, a Burlington County rapper, and searched his car in connection with the shooting of Lamont Peterson. When they looked in his backseat, they discovered 13 pages of rap lyrics that used violent language and descriptions of violence.

Although all of the lyrics were written before Peterson was shot, the lyrics were treated and admitted into trial as evidence. Skinner, who maintained his innocence, was convicted in 2008.

Skinner appealed the conviction. The ACLU-NJ filed an amicus brief that argued Skinner’s rap lyrics should be treated as protected first speech rather than as evidence. The brief argues that using rap lyrics as evidence of a confession is akin go indicting Johnny Cash for having “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

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ACLU-NJ Warns Schools Statewide to Stop Discriminatory ID Policies

April 1, 2014
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NEWARK -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) sent a letter (PDF) to 136 New Jersey school districts today advising them to change their discriminatory enrollment policies or face litigation.

The ACLU-NJ has identified 136 school districts that require overly restrictive forms of identification for an adult to enroll a child in school, contrary to state and federal law. Almost every New Jersey county had at least one school district with problematic identification guidelines, which tend to single out immigrant families. The ACLU-NJ’s website has a chart of every district identified.

"Time and again, courts have ruled that in a democratic society, the doors of public schools must be open for all children who live here," said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. "Yet we still see schools putting up unconstitutional barriers that single out some students as less worthy of an education than others. All New Jersey school districts must uphold our democratic ideals by letting all New Jersey children enroll in school, as the law requires."

The ACLU-NJ has given the school districts four weeks to reform their policies and practices before broaching the subject of litigation. The policies among the 136 districts varied widely in degree. Some districts requested both Social Security numbers and government-issued photo identification, a combination that plainly discriminates against children of undocumented parents. Other districts’ guidelines, such as those calling for photo ID without requiring that it be state-issued, also prevent or discourage undocumented parents from registering their children.

"These regulations may not have been issued with any intent to discriminate, but regardless of why these regulations were put in place, in practice they prevent some children from getting the education they’re entitled to by law," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "All New Jersey school districts need to erase these policies from the books."

The policies that call for state-issued identification all require a Social Security number or valid immigration status, which singles out immigrant communities in particular as ineligible for enrollment in school. New Jersey law requires proof only of the child’s age and residency within the district. While school districts may require proof of residency, the Constitution and state regulations mandate that public schools provide equal access to students regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status. Although the state Department of Education sends a semiannual reminder to school districts about enrollment requirements, nearly a quarter of public schools illegally ask for overly restrictive forms of identification.

The ACLU-NJ investigated the policies of school districts after residents of Butler in Morris County brought their school district’s restrictive ID policy to the ACLU-NJ’s attention. After forcing the ACLU-NJ to bring the matter to court, Butler agreed to institute nondiscriminatory enrollment policies that comport with the clearly established law. In following up after Butler, the ACLU-NJ learned of more school districts and identified 136 that have onerous identification requirements, including some of New Jersey’s largest cities.

The school districts of Jersey City, Trenton, Hamilton Township, Perth Amboy, Camden, Cherry Hill, East Orange, Montclair and Old Bridge, among the most populous municipalities in the state, all require IDs from families of prospective students that do not comply with state law. Bergen County had the highest number of school districts with restrictive ID policies, with 26 not complying. In 2011, the ACLU-NJ represented a resident of Bergen County who encountered difficulty enrolling his son in the Northern Valley Regional School District because of his status as an immigrant from Israel living in the United States on a visa. That school district now has an enrollment policy that does not discriminate against potential students based on their families’ immigration status.

"We were surprised by the number and broad range of school districts with restrictive, discriminatory enrollment policies," said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. "These policies exist in every almost county, from the poorest cities to the wealthiest suburbs, and everywhere in between. Clearly, the scale of this problem demands serious action, and serious self-examination among New Jersey school districts."

To see every New Jersey school district with a restrictive ID policy in place, read the ACLU-NJ’s findings online.

In 2008, the ACLU-NJ conducted rigorous telephone surveys of the more than 500 school districts in the state and discovered that 139 of them required documents that indicate immigration status, contrary to New Jersey regulations and the U.S. Constitution. Forty-six of these school districts still engage in discriminatory ID policies, according to the ACLU-NJ’s latest analysis.

"The Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that all children have an equal right to a public school education, regardless of their immigration status," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "We many never know how many children have been deprived of an education because of the failure of school districts to comply with constitutional requirements."

ACLU-NJ Stands Up for Student’s Free Speech Rights

March 28, 2014
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Mercer County high school prohibited student from flying Confederate flag on truck

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent a letter to Steinert High School to Steinert High School Principal Frank Ingargiola this week expressing concerns about the school’s demand for a student to stop flying a Confederate flag from his truck in the school parking lot. When high school senior Greg Vied refused to remove his flag, the Hamilton Township school ordered him to remove his stars-and-bars banner by the time he came back to the campus after serving a separately issued one-day suspension.

“As a civil rights organization, the ACLU-NJ recognizes that for many New Jersey communities the Confederate flag represents a painful history. At the same time, suppression of constitutionally protected speech goes against our founding principles as a nation,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, students' rights don't end at the school house gates -- they also don't end in the school parking lot."

The ACLU-NJ has urged school officials to rescind their calls for Vied to take down the flag. A number of court decisions – federal and state – protect Vied’s right to display the Confederate flag, most famously Tinker v. Des Moines, which allows censorship of student speech only if the administration can prove it would “materially and substantially” disrupt the operation of the school or interfere with another’s rights. The courts have upheld that the potential to offend does not alone constitute a material disruption.

“The First Amendment protects the right to express any viewpoint, no matter how unpopular, and therein lies its strength,” Barocas added. “As soon as we allow the government to silence one unpopular opinion – from the local school district to the president of the United States – the line between acceptable speech and banned types of thinking becomes dangerously blurred.”

In addition to defending the freedom of expression such as the flying of a Confederate flag, the ACLU-NJ fights doggedly for racial justice and equality in New Jersey, including work to end racial disparities in our broken criminal justice and education systems.

“The First Amendment protects the right to express any viewpoint, no matter how unpopular, and therein lies its strength,” Barocas added. “As soon as we allow the government to silence one unpopular opinion – from the local school district to the president of the United States – the line between acceptable speech and banned types of thinking becomes dangerously blurred.”

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ACLU-NJ Calls for Taxing and Regulating Marijuana

March 24, 2014
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New Jersey’s “War on Drugs,” has taken a severe toll on African-Americans who are more likely to be arrested

NEWARK – Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) announced today he is introducing a bill to tax and regulate marijuana in New Jersey.

The ACLU-NJ and national ACLU have been calling for ending the failed war on drugs, which has disproportionately targeted black New Jerseyans for marijuana charges.

The following statement is from Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey.

Udi Ofer

Taxing and regulating marijuana is an important step toward ending the failed war on drugs in New Jersey. The state’s war on drugs has derailed the lives of tens of thousands of New Jerseyans a year, especially African-Americans, who are close to three times more likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession despite similar usage rates.

Countless New Jerseyans have suffered from lost job, housing, and educational opportunities as a result of wasteful enforcement of nonviolent, low-level marijuana possession offenses. The time has come to move toward ending the injustice brought on by the war on drugs.

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ACLU-NJ Statement on Joint Committee on Criminal Justice Report

March 20, 2014
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NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) is urging the legislature to adopt recommendations issued today (1mb PDF) by the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice.

The committee, formed in 2013, was established to focus on issues relating to bail and the delays in bringing criminal cases to trial. The committee is comprised of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, private attorneys, court administrators and staff from the Legislature and Governor’s office.

ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom was one of the members of the committee.

The following statement is from Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey.

Alexander Shalom

“The report of the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice is groundbreaking because it reflects a unanimous view by people and organizations with seemingly divergent interests,” said Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney at the ACLU-NJ. “Prosecutors, defense attorneys, civil libertarians, judges and court administrators have joined voices with representatives of the legislative and executive branches to say that the current system of bail and detention promotes neither justice nor public safety. These seemingly strange bedfellows all recognize that a system where hundreds of people are jailed because they don’t have a few hundred dollars to post bail unfairly jails the poorest among us not the most dangerous among us.

“We call upon the Legislature to swiftly move on the Committee’s recommendations and pass comprehensive bail reform with speedy trial protections.”

ACLU-NJ Raises Concerns about Free Speech Rights at Christie Town Hall

March 19, 2014
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NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) is concerned about news reports that the State Police is photographing critics of Gov. Chris Christie at town hall meetings.

PolitickerNJ reported a plainclothes individual snapping photos of protesters at a Christie town hall in South River on Tuesday. According to the website, the photographer identified himself as a member of the State Police.

The following statement is from Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey.

Udi Ofer

"It raises serious First Amendment concerns that the State Police may be photographing protesters at Gov. Christie’s town hall meetings,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “The State Police must come clean and explain to New Jerseyans whether it has a practice or policy of photographing people engaged in First Amendment protected speech. New Jerseyans must be able to express their viewpoints without having to fear police officers photographing them and creating political dossiers on them."

ACLU-NJ Receives Librarians’ Open Government Watchdog Award

March 14, 2014
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American Library Association honors ACLU-NJ’s Open Governance Project with Eileen Cooke Award

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey’s Open Governance Project today received the American Library Association’s Eileen Cooke Award in recognition of its commitment to the free flow of information. The Eileen Cooke Award, named for the former director of the ALA Washington Office, honors grassroots advocates fighting for the freedom of information with the passion of its namesake. The Cooke award, given on Freedom of Information Day, is the state and local version of the ALA’s James Madison Award, which honors the pursuit of transparency on a national level.

“The recognition of our open government work from the American Library Association, one of the most passionate, most effective defenders of the public’s right to know, comes as an enormous honor,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “The ALA and the ACLU have both worked not only to protect the public’s right to know, but also to fight against government surveillance and censorship. We at the ACLU-NJ hope that our future efforts to strengthen the role of public participation continue to uphold the ALA’s legacy of securing accountability and transparency.”

Since its 2009 inception, the ACLU-NJ’s Open Governance Project has distinguished itself as a leading government watchdog in New Jersey. In the five years since the program’s start, the organization has won scores of lawsuits and successfully fought for access to information when government officials took pains to shield records and access from the public. Most recently, the ACLU-NJ called for more transparency at the Port Authority and in the Christie administration in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal.

In 2012, the Open Governance Project wrested details from former Newark Mayor Cory Booker about the $100 million pledge Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg made to Newark’s schools after a protracted tug-of-war. The project has compelled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to share his calendar with the public to reveal details about meetings with Fox News Chief Roger Ailes, vindicated members of the public wrongly excluded from public meetings, ensured changes to regulations that had created broad exemptions to the Open Public Records Act, and aided in securing meaningful standards for public notice of government meetings, among dozens of other victories large and small.

"We thank the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey for their commitment to improving government transparency, and we are proud to recognize the organization with the prestigious Eileen Cooke Award," said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association.

The awards ceremony takes place at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., as part of the ALA’s National Freedom of Information Day Conference. Past recipients of the Eileen Cooke Award for openness advocacy on the state and local level include Patricia Glass Schuman, founder of Neal-Schuman Publishers, and the Minnesota Coalition on Open Government. Recipients of the national version of the Eileen Cooke Award, the James Madison Award, include Internet freedom pioneer Aaron Swartz, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and philanthropist George Soros.

School District Drops Discriminatory Policy Upon ACLU-NJ Challenge

March 11, 2014
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Butler School District agrees in court to end policy that discriminates against immigrants that violated state laws and Constitution

The Morris County school district sued by the ACLU-NJ for refusing to end a policy that discriminated against immigrant families agreed today in court to stop requiring overly restrictive forms of identification for student enrollment, in accordance with the Constitution and established New Jersey law. The Butler School District said today in New Jersey Superior Court that as a result of the ACLU-NJ’s lawsuit, officials there will no longer fight changes to abandon its photo ID policy.

“We’re pleased that the Butler School District will finally change its policy to allow students to enroll without subjecting them to unlawful discrimination,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “We have said from the beginning that this issue should not have required intervention from a court, as the law unambiguously forbids barriers to children getting a public education based on immigration status.”

Butler’s policy called for parents to present forms of ID that they could obtain only with a Social Security number or valid immigration status, therefore singling out immigrant communities during public school registration. While school districts may require proof of residency, the Constitution and state regulations mandate that public schools provide equal access to students regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status. Members of the Butler community contacted the ACLU-NJ to let them know of Butler’s barriers to enrollment, and when the school district said that it would not change the rule, the ACLU-NJ took the issue to court.

“Today’s agreement reaffirms the importance of our public schools in a healthy democracy and strong communities,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “These types of impermissible restrictions cause stress and fear in families. Thankfully, parents in Butler can breathe a sigh of relief this week during Butler’s enrollment period, knowing that their children will not be blocked from their constitutional right to an education. From a local court in Morris County to the highest court in the country, the law recognizes the essential function of educating every child in America, no matter what.”

In 2008, the ACLU-NJ conducted rigorous telephone surveys of the more than 500 school districts in the state and discovered that 139 of them (including Butler) required documents that indicate immigration status, contrary to New Jersey regulations and the U.S. Constitution. Officials from the New Jersey Department of Education now regularly remind school districts each semester of their obligation to enroll all local students, regardless of immigration status.

ACLU-NJ Sues Butler School District for Discriminating Against Immigrant Families

March 10, 2014
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NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed a lawsuit on Friday, March 7, in New Jersey Superior Court against the Butler School District in Morris County, requesting an expedited hearing to halt the district from demanding parents present state- or county-issued photo ID to enroll their children in Butler public schools. The judge granted the hearing for Tues., March 11, at 9 a.m.

Because parents can only obtain the identification if they have a Social Security number or valid immigration status, Butler’s policy singles out immigrant communities in particular as ineligible for enrollment in school.  While school districts may require proof of residency, the Constitution and state regulations mandate that public schools provide equal access to students regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status.

"The Butler School District continues to stand by a policy that wrongly blocks certain children from the classroom based on the immigration status of their parents, even though the law unambiguously forbids it," said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. "Fortunately, most school districts operate within the bounds of established constitutional law, which for more than 30 years has upheld the right of all children to attend public schools, regardless of their background or origin."

On behalf of ACLU-NJ members directly affected by Butler’s policies, the ACLU-NJ seeks an emergency injunction to allow for their children’s enrollment during the enrollment period for the 2014-2015 school year, taking place between March 10 and March 14. When contacted with information that the photo identification requirement was unlawful, the Butler School District refused to rescind the rule.

In 2008, the ACLU-NJ conducted rigorous telephone surveys of the more than 500 school districts in the state and discovered that 139 of them (including Butler) required documents that indicate immigration status, contrary to New Jersey regulations and the U.S. Constitution. Officials from the New Jersey Department of Education, disturbed by the results of the ACLU-NJ study, now regularly remind school districts of their obligation to enroll all local students, regardless of immigration status.

"Because public schools play a fundamental role in strengthening our communities and our democracy, the New Jersey Constitution entitles all young residents to a public education regardless of where they or their parents were born," said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. "Requiring a parent’s photo ID is a needless barrier to an education that not only violates the Constitution, but also undermines the ideal that public schools serve all of the children in a community."

The case, captioned ACLU-NJ v. Butler Public School District, was filed March 7, 2014, in the Chancery Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Morris County. The hearing, MRS-C-42-14 on the docket, takes place in the same venue on Tues., March 11, at 9 a.m. before the Honorable Stephan C. Hansbury.