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N.J. Legislature passes overhaul of state's public records laws. Here's what it means.

N.J. Senate passes controversial overhaul to state's Open Public Records Act
N.J. Senate passes controversial overhaul to state's Open Public Records Act 01:55

TRENTON, N.J. -- The New Jersey Legislature on Monday passed a controversial overhaul to the state's Open Public Records Act.

The measure is now headed to Gov. Phil Murphy's desk.

Boos and jeers echoed through the chamber after lawmakers advanced reforms to the state's 22-year-old law, prompting Senate President Nicholas Scutari to say, "Let's act with some decorum here, please."

Debate around OPRA reform

Advocacy groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, argued the reform bill guts public access to information. Some critics spoke outside the Senate chambers on Monday, saying the changes will result in less government transparency.

"I was dismayed," said Sarah Fajardo, the ACLU of N.J.'s policy director.

One reason the ACLU is fighting the bill is because it will limit anyone from requesting public records if that person's intent is to "substantially interrupt" the government.

"It could really be weaponized by agencies if they wanted to," Fajardo said. "They could say, 'This is gonna substantially impair my business and so we're gonna come after you,' and that's a real chilling effect."

"This isn't about anything other than saving taxpayers' money," Scutari said.

Scutari, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the goal is to keep public agencies from being inundated with more requests than they can handle.

"There's going to be a savings of taxpayer dollars because they won't have as many people that are dedicated to these requests," Scutari said.

The bill would also remove a mandate that courts award attorney fees to people who successfully fight for public records after being denied.

Lawmakers have now amended that portion to state that a court can still award attorney fees if an agency "unreasonably denied access" to records.

"There were a lot of amendments these last few weeks, but they just didn't go far enough for my support," Sen. Andrew Zwicker said.

The ACLU said it will be writing to Gov. Murphy to urge him to veto the bill.

After the Senate vote, a spokesperson for the governor said they won't comment on pending legislation. CBS New York asked again after the Assembly vote what the governor plans to do and we did not receive a response.

What is an OPRA request?

OPRA replaced the state's Right to Know Law when it was enacted in 2002.

It was designed to expand public access to government records. It also created an administrative appeals process and defined what is considered a "government record."

"Government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying, or examination by the citizens of this State, with certain exceptions, for the protection of the public interest," the law reads.

Members of the press can file what's called an OPRA request to obtain government documents. For example, CBS New York used OPRA to investigate hundreds of New Jersey police officers who had to be retrained after attending a 2021 conference in Atlantic City.

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