ACLU-NJ files suit after receiving complaint that visitors were required to remove buttons to enter Statehouse
NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) filed a lawsuit against the State of New Jersey today for unlawfully refusing to release its policy on wearing buttons, pins or stickers in the Statehouse. The ACLU-NJ requested the policy under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) after receiving a complaint from Statehouse visitors who were told they would have to remove politically expressive buttons to enter.
“It is completely absurd that the State Police may have a policy restricting what the public can or cannot do, but then refuses to let the public know what the policy actually says,” stated ACLU-NJ acting executive director Ed Barocas.
After receiving the complaints, an attorney for the ACLU-NJ contacted the State Police Superintendent, requesting that he provide the current policy on wearing buttons or stickers in the Statehouse. On August 13, the State Police’s Records Custodian rejected the ACLU-NJ’s request, stating the policy falls under “standard operating procedures” and is therefore exempt from OPRA under new regulations adopted by the Attorney General.
“The Statehouse belongs to the public, and the public has a right to know if the government has placed any unconstitutional restrictions on their free speech,” said Janie Byalik of Pashman Stein, P.C., which represents the ACLU-NJ in the matter. “The state’s refusal to release its free speech policy is an affront to transparency and to democracy.”
The Attorney General’s office has attempted to justify withholding “standard operating procedure” records from the public because they “do not generally impact the public’s interactions with agencies in the Department of Law and Public Safety” and “may also provide insight into law enforcement techniques, legal strategy and other confidential matters that may put lives at risk.”
The ACLU-NJ has opposed these regulations, adopted in December 2011, saying they are overly broad and allow the state to withhold broad categories of public documents — even general policies such as the ones at issue here — from the public unlawfully.
“It is difficult to fathom how releasing the state’s policies on buttons and pins would put the public’s lives at risk,” said Byalik. “And if any restrictions exist, they directly affect how the public is being asked to interact with State Police and with our legislators. This is another example of how the state is using these regulations to keep the public in the dark about basic government policies that they have a right to know about.”
The ACLU-NJ is challenging the Attorney General’s regulations directly in a separate lawsuit filed in the state appellate division on June 29, asking the court to invalidate several provisions of the regulations that allow the state to exempt documents such as: standard operating procedure and training manuals, employment policies, and State Trooper overtime.
Last week, the ACLU-NJ filed yet another separate lawsuit after the State Police unlawfully denied a request for public records detailing its promotion policies. Calling the request too broad, the state said it considered those records exempt from OPRA because they are standard operating procedures and relate to employment.