NEWARK, N.J. — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey’s (ACLU-NJ) Open Governance Project has won access to the building and site plans of a road salt storage barn in Bethlehem Township, Hunterdon County. The ACLU-NJ’s Open Governance Project sued the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) after it denied a resident access to the plans.
In a settlement with the state (294k PDF), the DCA has agreed to release the plans, which were submitted to its Office of Local Code Enforcement in Hunterdon County. In addition to releasing the documents, the state will pay for the ACLU-NJ’s attorney fees.
“We are pleased that the state has come to recognize that the release of these records do not compromise public safety,” said ACLU-NJ Open Governance Project Attorney Bobby Conner. “We are also pleased that the state worked with us to resolve this matter expeditiously. In the future, though we hope government entities will be more cautious before using this as a justification to unlawfully deny access to public records.”
The state had invoked an executive order that allows state agencies to deny requests for public records that could increase the risk of terrorism or heighten the impact of an attack. The barn at issue in this matter stores road salt and has plastic windows and one door. It was built by Bethlehem Township in 2007 with taxpayer dollars.
Carole Chiffarano, the resident who requested the records last fall, said she is glad she will have an opportunity to review the records.
“I’m very happy with the outcome, but I don’t think residents should have to leap through hurdles in order to get public documents,” said Chiffarano. ”I am thankful that the ACLU-NJ was here to help, but there are many residents who don’t have the ability or resources to challenge the state when it tries to keep the public in the dark. I hate to think of the taxpayer resources they spent fighting this.”
Chiaffarano had already received the building and site plans from Bethlehem Township, but she had reason to believe that the construction of the salt barn differed from the plans that Bethlehem submitted to the DCA and other state agencies for their approvals. Chiaffarano was concerned about whether the barn was constructed safely.
Chiaffarano, whose property is 38 feet away from the barn, hoped to compare the municipal documents with the DCA’s. She first requested plans in September 2010, but was denied access under both New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and her common law rights to obtain public records. In addition to written requests, she called the DCA on November 1, 2010 to schedule an office visit to review the plans. She was told that such a review is “prohibited by state law” and that only the engineer or the "owner of the plans” could access records. As part of the settlement that has now been reached, the requested records were released to Chiaffarano pursuant to her common law rights of access.
The ACLU-NJ’s Open Governance Project, founded in 2009 through a grant from the Pratt Bequest Fund of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, is dedicated to ensuring that government agencies uphold and enforce OPRA and New Jersey’s Sunshine law.
NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey won a court order today that calls for the immediate suspension of a Point Pleasant Beach policy that allows for government-led prayer at municipal council meetings. The policy, adopted by the council in October 2010, allowed its municipal council members to lead meetings with prayers that reflect their personal religious beliefs.
The ACLU-NJ sued the borough on behalf of resident Sharon Cadalzo on November 9, 2010, and sought a preliminary injunction halting the practice. The current lawsuit is a second challenge by the ACLU-NJ to the borough's unconstitutional sponsorship of particular religious beliefs. Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso issued the injunction. The lawsuit is still pending.
"The policy clearly violated the New Jersey constitution, which obligates the government to not show a preference for one religion over another," said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director, who argued the motion. "We support the right of government officials to pray on their own time, but when they act as the voice of government, they cannot promote their own religious beliefs."
Cadalzo has been regularly attending council meetings since 2007. Until the new policy was adopted, the borough clerk recited the Lord's prayer and made the sign of the cross. The new policy has allowed the borough to continue its practice by authorizing council members to offer explicitly Christian prayers at their meetings, including the November 9 meeting which Cadalzo attended.
"Our community practices and celebrates many different faiths and beliefs," Cadalzo said. "The borough's actions and policy ignores our diversity and can have a chilling effect on residents who are not a member of the 'preferred' religion."
The ACLU-NJ first filed suit on Cadalzo's behalf on September 16, 2010. It dropped the suit after the borough agreed to stop reciting the Lord's Prayer. The borough then adopted the policy currently in dispute.
"I am pleased that the court has put a stop to this policy, which was a transparent attempt at circumventing the constitution," said ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Frank L. Corrado, of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson P.C. in Wildwood, New Jersey. "I sincerely hope borough officials will recognize that promoting one religion over another is alienating, divisive and unconstitutional."
The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Cadalzo v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al., docket number OCN-L-4087-10.
More information about the ACLU's work to defend religious freedom can be found at http://www.aclu.org/aclu-defense-religious-practice-and-expression and http://www.aclufightsforchristians.com
NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties of New Jersey today submitted a brief to the New Jersey Supreme Court seeking to protect the rights of bloggers and independent, non-traditional journalists under the First Amendment and New Jersey Shield Law.
"The reality is that people can gather and disseminate information without being part of a larger media conglomerate," said Rutgers-Newark Law School Vice Dean Ronald Chen, who wrote the friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. "The First Amendment protects the lone leafletter just as it does the large newspaper employee. Thanks to the Internet, today's 'lone leafletter' can now reach a much larger audience than in the past."
The ACLU-NJ's amicus brief seeks clarification (257k PDF) of a decision issued by the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court on April 22, 2010, which narrowly interprets the New Jersey Reporters' Shield Law. In its decision, the lower court improperly limited free-press protections to journalists affiliated with traditional institutional journalism.
The lawsuit, Too Much Media v. Shellee Hale, arose in 2008 when Too Much Media, a Freehold-based software company, sued Washington State resident Shellee Hale claiming that information she disseminated about the company on the Internet was defamatory. Too Much Media sought Hale's confidential sources of information as part of its defamation suit, but Hale invoked the New Jersey Shield Law, which in most instances protects members of the media from the pressure to disclose their confidential sources.
The ACLU-NJ's brief to the New Jersey Supreme Court challenges the Appellate Division's decision to deny Hale protection under the Shield Law based on her lack of affiliation with a traditional media service. The ACLU-NJ argues that the conduct and intent of a person to gather and disseminate information qualifies that person as a journalist, not whether that individual works for a "traditional" media outlet.
"The Shield Law was created to stimulate the free flow of information and serve society's interests to acquire knowledge and hold those in power accountable. It should apply broadly," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "What matters is whether someone acts as a journalist and operates with the intent of a journalist, not whether that person is on a traditional media entity's payroll."
While the ACLU-NJ believes the courts should utilize a broader standard in determining application of the Shield Law's protections, it also agrees that a person who simply makes intermittent comments on a message board or chat forum would not be protected. The organization takes no position and remains neutral on whether the defendant, Hale, has met the standard in this case.
The case is captioned Too Much Media v. Shellee Hale.
NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey's (ACLU-NJ) Open Governance Project sued the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) Office of Local Code Enforcement today for denying access to plans concerning a road salt storage barn in Bethlehem Township, Hunterdon County. The barn, which stores road salt, was built in 2007 using taxpayer dollars.
Although Carole Chiaffarano, the resident who requested the documents, has already received the building and site plans from Bethlehem Township, she had reason to believe that the construction of the salt barns differed from the plans the township submitted to the DCA and other state agencies for their approval.
Chiaffarano, whose property is 38 feet away from the barn, hoped to compare the municipal documents with the DCA's, but her request was denied. The DCA cited an executive order that allows state agencies to reject requests for public records that could raise the likelihood of terrorism or heighten the impact of an attack.
"I was shocked that my requests were denied because of security reasons," stated Chiaffarano, the plaintiff in the case. "The state's actions leave the Bethlehem community in the dark about whether the barn was built safely and correctly. Since the township's plans are out in the open already, I don't see how comparing two sets of documents poses a risk to anyone."
Chiaffarano, a resident of Bethlehem Township, first requested plans from the DCA in September 2010 hoping to uncover whether the township submitted different versions of the building and site plans for the approval of the DCA and other agencies. In addition to written requests, she called the DCA on Nov. 1 to schedule an office visit to review the plans. She was told that such a review is "prohibited by state law" and that "only the engineer or the owner of the plans" could access records. The agency also denied her requests for the information under the common-law rights that also grant access to public records for New Jersey citizens. Chiaffarano fears that the plans used in the actual construction of the salt barns were not approved by one or more of the appropriate governmental agencies.
"It borders on absurdity that the DCA believes access to records about a barn with plastic windows and one door could put the public at risk," said ACLU-NJ Open Governance Attorney Bobby Conner. "This is an example of a state agency using a ludicrous justification to withhold information from the public."
The ACLU-NJ's Open Governance Project, founded in 2009 through a grant from the Pratt Bequest Fund of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, is dedicated to ensuring that government agencies uphold and enforce the Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act throughout New Jersey.
The case, captioned Carole Chiaffarano v. DCA, is pending in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Hunterdon County.
TRENTON — In a press conference scheduled for noon today in room 103 at the Statehouse, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey will stand alongside legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle to support a resolution asking the United States Congress to review new TSA screening procedures at airports that violate privacy, and provide little in the way of security enhancements.
"This technology involves a direct invasion of privacy," said ACLU-NJ executive director Deborah Jacobs, "It produces strikingly graphic images of passengers' bodies, essentially taking a naked picture of air passengers as they pass through security checkpoints."
The ACLU maintains that the likely effectiveness of such a technology in preventing attacks does not justify the level of intrusion involved.
News conference attendees include:
At the press conference, the Legislators will announce the introduction of a resolution urging Congress to immediately review the new TSA screening procedures and the reports of passenger abuse occurring at our nation's airports. Senator James Beach (6th District) will join Senator Doherty in sponsoring the Senate version of the resolution.
Newark — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced today that it has once again filed suit against Point Pleasant Beach to challenge government-led prayers at municipal council meetings. The ACLU-NJ recently dismissed a previous lawsuit after the borough abandoned its practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer at every council meeting.
Point Pleasant Beach's new policy allows council members, on a rotating basis, to offer sectarian prayers - including the Lord's Prayer - at the start of council meetings. The ACLU-NJ represents borough resident Sharon Cadalzo in a challenge to this unconstitutional entanglement between the government and religion.
"The borough has replaced one unconstitutional policy with another." said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director. "New Jersey law is clear that government invocations may not include sectarian prayers."
Cadalzo regularly attends council meetings and began questioning the borough's explicit preference for Christianity more than two years ago.
"I'm disappointed in the new policy," said Cadalzo. "It shows disrespect for the diversity of our community and disrespect for the First Amendment."
The ACLU handles a variety of cases and issues concerning religious freedom. The First Amendment protects the right to practice religion as we wish, a principle that depends on the government demonstrating neutrality towards religion, and not preferring religion over non-religion, thus allowing people to practice their beliefs free from discrimination by government.
"This policy ignores the fact that the borough serves people of many different faiths and undermines the fundamental American value of religious freedom by giving council members a platform to promote their personal religious beliefs," said ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Frank L. Corrado, of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson P.C. in Wildwood, New Jersey.
The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Cadalzo v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al., docket number OCN-L-4087-10, and will be heard before Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso on December 3, 2010, at 10 a.m.
More information about the ACLU's work to defend religious freedom can be found at www.aclufightsforchristians.com
TRENTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Project Vote and the Fair Elections Legal Network today submitted a brief seeking to ensure that the Department of Education fulfill a twenty-five-year old mandate to protect the voting rights of private, charter, and public school students, which the DOE has thus-far failed to meet.
“It is appalling that 25 years after the High School Voter Registration Law was issued, there are still no regulations on the books protecting the rights of private and charter school students under the law, and only the most minimal of protections for district public school students,” said Ed Barocas, the ACLU-NJ legal director.
In 1985, New Jersey passed a law giving all eligible high school seniors the right to receive a voter registration form and voter education as they neared adulthood. The law required the DOE to pass regulations to effectuate the law and ensure compliance. But the DOE never did. And even when the DOE earlier this year created a minimal and insufficient compliance requirement for public schools, it still wholly ignored the rights of students at private and charter schools.
In June of this year, the DOE turned down the voting rights groups’ formal request to tighten the oversight requirements. The groups therefore took state educators to court. This appeal of the DOE decision is based on a section of the voter law that says the commissioner of education “shall adopt” regulations on the voting law.
“The result is that students in 40 to 60 percent of school districts are not being educated about a fundamental aspect of our democracy, or are not receiving the tools they need to register and to vote,” stated Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Legal Network. “When Governor Tom Kean signed the law in 1985, it was out of a civic-minded purpose to fight low rates of voter registration and voting that tend to occur among youth. Today’s lawsuit asks the State to honor that promise to New Jersey’s students and enforce their rights under the voting laws.”
The case is especially important for the over 13,000 students who graduate from private and charter schools every year. The State doesn’t monitor those schools at all for compliance with the voter registration law.
The 84,000 students who graduate annually from New Jersey public schools will also benefit from this case, which asks the appeals court to bolster state oversight and monitoring over their voter registration practices for public schools. Currently, school administrators must check a box on a 144-page checklist, once every three years, to affirm compliance. That is the extent of oversight imposed by the State about the voting laws.
According to Census Department figures, youths age 18-24 vote at far lower rates than their older counterparts. The past two presidential elections years have shown gaps ranging from 12 to 23 percent between the rates of youth voter registration and turnout and the voter registration and turnout of the population as a whole.
Estelle Rogers of Project Vote noted that her group is engaged in a year-long project to register 100,000 high school students in five states. “Research shows that it is possible to create long-term change by encouraging life-long civic participation from young people,” said Rogers. “School-based voter registration drives are one of the best ways of accomplishing this change,” she added.
NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey will empower New Jersey citizens by distributing information about our rights when confronted with police misconduct or abuse at New Jersey rail hubs today. The organization also submitted supplemental information to the petition it filed last month with the Department of Justice detailing additional misconduct in the Newark Police, as well as a petition from residents of Newark in support of federal investigation.
"Our top priority for today is educating citizens about their rights when confronted by police misconduct," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director for the ACLU-NJ. "It's essential that we exercise our rights - it's use them or lose them."
To help citizens of New Jersey prevent police abuse and confront it as it happens, volunteers from the ACLU-NJ will distribute “know your rights” cards at heavily trafficked train stations in Newark, New Brunswick, Princeton and Hoboken during morning and afternoon rush hours.
Each year the ACLU-NJ distributes approximately 12,000 of the wallet-size resources, known as bust cards, and posts them in English (1mb PDF), Spanish (1mb PDF) and Portuguese (1.3mb PDF) on its website (www.aclu-nj.org). The organization regularly holds forums and workshops throughout the state educating people about their rights.
Today's bust-card blitz is part of coordinated ACLU-NJ efforts to bring oversight to New Jersey's police, including advocacy to reform the Newark Police Department, the state's largest municipal department. The ACLU-NJ filed a supplemental petition to the DOJ (82k PDF) adding new allegations of misconduct the organization has found since filing a petition with the Department of Justice last month.
Since filing the petition Sept. 9, the ACLU-NJ learned of 13 more lawsuits filed during the petition's original study period, between Jan. 2008 and July 2010, bringing the total number of suits filed during that time to 64. Since July, citizens have filed at least three more lawsuits alleging police misconduct, and two officers have had criminal charges filed against them.
Since the ACLU-NJ submitted its petition, the taxpayer bill for case settlements continues to rise. Ramon Guzman received a settlement of $300,000, bringing the settlements paid by city taxpayers for police misconduct to more than $5,000,000 over the past three years. Guzman, who could not read English, was coerced into signing a false confession admitting to crimes he did not commit and spent 10 months in jail before his charges were dismissed.
Further bolstering the original petition, Newark community activists today "submitted a petition of their own", with 402 signatures calling for federal intervention.
"We hope the Department of Justice will hear and heed our pleas for help," said Dadisi Sanyika, Political Action Director of the Newark Unit of the New Jersey NAACP.
Flavio Komuves, senior counsel of the ACLU of New Jersey, said that the new incidents described in the supplemental petition support the ongoing need for federal intervention.
"The new data show that the NPD is beset with serious and systemic problems that need to be addressed through federal help and an independent monitor," Komuves said. He added that one of the reforms touted by the NPD, an early warning system for potentially troublesome officers, has been put on hold while the police union pursues a grievance about the matter.
"Even the officers' resistance to a performance-monitoring program speaks volumes about the ingrained lack of accountability in the NPD," Komuves added.
The ACLU advocates for best practices in policing to prevent the abuse of citizens. The ACLU also frequently represents police officers (44k PDF) whose civil liberties have been violated.
NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey applauded the New Jersey Supreme Court this week for lowering the cost of court records to make it consistent with the new rates imposed under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). "The ACLU-NJ wrote to the Supreme Court" (143k PDF) last month seeking to confirm that it would lower its copying costs to correspond to the OPRA standard, as has been its practice.
Last month, Governor Christie signed into law a bill significantly reducing the rates for paper copies of public records accessed through OPRA to five cents per page for letter-size copies and seven cents per page for legal-size copies. The lowering of copy costs was long-sought by open government advocates, including the ACLU-NJ and New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJ FOG), whose members encountered exhorbitant fees for copies as a barrier to transparency.
"The Supreme Court's changes to its fee schedule not only provide consistency in fees for public records in the State, but also enable greater access to court records and information," said Bobby Conner, staff attorney for the ACLU-NJ Open Governance Project.
The court's previous fee schedule for records - 75 cents per page for the first 10 pages, 50 cents per page for the next 10 pages, and 25 cents per page for additional pages - corresponded to the now-obsolete fees articulated in OPRA prior to the passage of the recent amendments.
The ACLU has long recognized that an open and transparent government is a founding value of American democracy. The ACLU-NJ's Open Governance Project, the only full-time public interest legal program in the state dedicated solely to open governance matters, works closely with the New Jersey Legislature and county and local government agencies to promote greater access to public meetings and records.
"The new rates correspond to the actual costs of providing the court records," Conner added. "The Court has clearly sent a message that public access to government is a right, not a privilege to those who can afford it."
Newark — Acting on behalf of a borough resident, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced today that it has filed suit against Point Pleasant Beach to challenge the borough's longstanding practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer at its municipal council meetings. The ACLU-NJ has also asked the court to issue an injunction halting the practice while the suit is ongoing.
"The Constitution forbids a government entity from showing preference to a particular religion," said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director. "The prayer recited at Point Pleasant Beach council meetings is one of the most extreme examples we have seen of an explicit preference for Christianity."
After examining public records, the ACLU-NJ learned that the Borough has been reciting the Lord's Prayer - one of the most well-known Christian prayers - at its council meetings for at least six years.
Point Pleasant Beach resident Sharon Cadalzo, who regularly attends council meetings, expressed her concerns about the recitation of the Lord's Prayer to both the current and former mayor. After years of distress over the practice, Cadalzo sought the ACLU-NJ's help to file a complaint against the practice.
"People of all faiths and beliefs should feel welcome at public meetings," said Cadalzo. "It's a matter of fairness. No member of the community should feel that their beliefs exclude them from public life."
"Beginning a municipal council meeting with a prayer rooted in just one religious tradition not only violates the state constitution, but also divides the community," said ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Frank L. Corrado, of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson P.C. in Wildwood, New Jersey.
The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Cadalzo v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al., docket number L-3409-10, and is before Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso.