New Guides Help NJ Citizens Gain Access to Government

November 2, 2011

ACLU-NJ pamphlets answer key questions about NJ’s sunshine and right-to-know laws

NEWARK - Although New Jersey's Sunshine Law and Open Public Meetings Act are powerful tools to gain access to government officials, interpreting the laws can sometimes present a challenge. The ACLU-NJ has two new resources to change that, one demystifying the Sunshine Law (382k PDF) and another shedding light on the Open Public Records Act (369k PDF).

  • The ACLU-NJ's guide to New Jersey's Sunshine Law (382k PDF) explains the rules all public bodies must follow regarding meetings, including whether they have to keep minutes (they do), whether they can be fined for violating the law (they can), whether it's legal for members of the public to record meetings (it is), and times when members of the public may speak (during mandatory public-comment periods).
  • Additionally, the guide to New Jersey's Open Public Records Act (369k PDF) teaches the ins and outs of accessing government documents: how to file a request at any level of government in New Jersey, what copies of records will cost (5 cents for letter-size paper, 7 cents for legal) and what to do if a request is denied (there are several options).

"The law supports the rights of New Jersey citizens to get the information they need to engage in community issues and concerns, but you can only fight for your rights if you know what they are," said ACLU-NJ Open Governance Attorney Bobby Conner. "Having an easy-to-use guide to these rights should embolden people to act if government agencies unlawfully hide information or forbid access to meetings."

The pamphlet is available on the ACLU-NJ's website, www.aclu-nj.org/opengov. Members of the public can also request a pamphlet by emailing info@aclu-nj.org.

Citizens can use the Sunshine Law and Open Public Records Act to uncover a wide range of information, from official salaries and crime statistics to school board meeting minutes and topics coming before the city council. The ACLU-NJ's Open Governance Project has used the Sunshine Law and Open Public Records Act to uncover whether New Jersey has tracked cell phones; to find out which school districts violated the state's rules for enrolling immigrant students; to learn whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie met with the head of Fox News; and to secure the rights of citizens to access and record public meetings.

"Unless we know what our government officials are doing, there's no way to hold our elected officials accountable," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "We hope these pamphlets will serve as a how-to guide for everyone in New Jersey to play a direct part in defending democracy."

The longstanding tension in New Jersey between concerned citizens and powerful local authorities was just one factor that gave rise to the ACLU-NJ's Open Governance Project, founded in 2009 with a generous grant from Rutgers School of Law's Pratt Bequest to help New Jerseyans gain access to their government. The ACLU-NJ saw firsthand the severity of government agencies' problems with transparency. While trying to investigate civil liberties violations, the ACLU-NJ regularly encounters roadblocks to information based on misinterpretations of open records laws, stalling civil liberties work, and weakening checks on governmental power.

The ACLU-NJ is currently working with legislators to modernize the Sunshine Law, which has hardly been touched since its passage in 1974, on the heels of Watergate, and the Open Public Records Act, which was last revised in 2002. Advances in technology have changed the day-to-day processes of government drastically, and the laws require clarification to guarantee open government in an age when officials can use electronic communications to shield records and hold secret meetings.

For more information on the ACLU-NJ's Open Governance Project and its work to promote transparency, visit https://www.aclu-nj.org/theissues/opengovernment/opengovernanceproject/

Category: Open Government

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