New Jersey Freedom of Information Act
What is the New Jersey Freedom of Information Act?
Enacted in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides persons with a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to the records of federal agencies, except where records or portions of them are prohibited from public disclosure. Since the FOIA went into effect in 1967, states in the United States have followed suit and enacted their own adaption of the federal Act. New Jersey's adaption of the FOIA is called the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and is codified under NJSA. 47:1A-l et seq. OPRA was approved on January 8, 2002, but only became effective on July 7, 2002. The enactment of OPRA by the state's legislature was a response to the growing public cynicism about politics and distrust of government following the Vietnam War and Watergate.
The goal of OPRA is to have government meetings and records open as much as feasible, keeping with the public interest and without infringing individual privacy. In enacting the OPRA, the New Jersey legislature validated the public's right to attend all public bodies' meetings and observe in detail all phases of their deliberation, policy formulation, and decision-making process. This validation is critical to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process in the state. The New Jersey legislature determined that secrecy in public affairs undermines the public's faith in government and limits the effectiveness of the public in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.
Pursuant to the OPRA, any citizen of New Jersey possesses the right the inspect or copy public records. While the OPRA provides that government records must be readily accessible by citizens of the state, the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General has advised that the OPRA does not prohibit access by residents of other states in the United States. Note that under OPRA, the requester's purpose for inspecting or copying public records is irrelevant.
What is Covered Under the New Jersey Freedom of Information Act?
Generally, all government records are covered and subject under the Open Public Records Act, except where specially exempted. Hence, you can access the public records of any New Jersey agency, including any of the principal departments in the executive arm of government and any principal department's division, bureau, office, board, or commission. The public records of the legislature and any office, bureau, commission, or board within or established by the legislative branch are covered under the scope of OPRA. The OPRA also covers the public record of any independent state authority, commission, instrumentality, or agency. Note that public record in New Jersey is used to refer to all government records made, maintained, acquired, or kept on file in the course of official business by any officer, agency, or commission of the state or any of its political subdivision.
Under NJSA C.47:1A-1.1, a public record may be in the form of a paper, printed or written book, drawing, map, document, plan, photograph, microfilm, image-processed or data-processed document, and information maintained or stored electronically or by sound-recording or in a similar device.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in New Jersey?
According to the New Jersey OPRA, an agency or a record custodian may deny access to a record under one or more of the following statutory exemptions:
- Intra- or inter-agency material that is consultative, deliberative, or advisory in nature
- interactions between members of the New Jersey legislature and constituents
- Memos and other communications used by members of the legislature in the discharge of duties
- Records of medical examination relating to the body of a deceased person, except where they are used for research purposes or law enforcement uses, or if there is a good reason for disclosure.
- Crime victims' records
- Records of criminal investigations
- Trade secrets, commercial or financial information
- Attorney-client privilege information
- Technical or administrative information that may threaten security
- Construction and infrastructure plans, and emergency procedures whose disclosure may cause a security concern
- Information that, if disclosed, would provide rivals or bidders an edge
- Information on accusations or claims involving sexual harassment
- Information about collective bargaining
- Information between a public entity and its insurer information protected by court order
- Honorable discharge certificates (disclosure to the veteran's spouse is authorized)
- Personally identifying information including Social Security numbers, driver's licenses, credit card numbers, and unlisted phone numbers
- College and university documents pertaining to unfinished pharmaceutical research; test questions, answers, and scoring keys; the identities of anonymous donors; rare publications with restricted public access; admission applications; and student records (academic and disciplinary).
- Any record exempted under another statute.
- The public defender files in a case that is considered classified.
- A government employee's personnel and pension record.
How Do I File a New Jersey Freedom of Information Act Request?
The first step in obtaining a public record is to decide what records you wish to inspect or copy. Subsequently, you should identify who the custodian of the record is. Typically, the record custodian is the administrative officer of the agency or public body maintaining the record. To contact the record custodian, you may visit the agency's website to obtain the telephone number of the public records officer or the agency itself. The New Jersey OPRA does not prohibit informal public record requests made over the telephone. Many agencies also have OPRA request forms on their websites that requesters may complete online or download to be completed later. Usually, downloaded OPRA application forms contain mailing addresses to which requesters may send completed applications. Otherwise, you can mail completed OPRA application forms to the mailing addresses of the record custodians as obtained from the agencies' websites. Some agencies also have OPRA request policies. If you cannot find a request policy on an agency's website, it is recommended that you verify with the record custodian if one exists.
If you choose to complete an OPRA request in writing, it is recommended that you include your contact information for correspondence and as much information as possible to enable the record custodian to locate the record in quick time.
To make an OPRA request to the New Jersey Department of Education, you can fill out an online request form or complete a mail-in request form. Mail-in requests may be sent to:
100 River View Plaza
P.O. Box 500
Trenton, NJ 08625-0500
You can also make further OPRA inquiries to the Department of Education by contacting the Department by telephone at (609) 376-9081, or by fax at (609) 292-4333, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make an OPRA request to the Office of Local Public Health in New Jersey, you may complete an online OPRA request form or a Government Record Request form (Form OC-34) and mail it to:
Custodian of Government Records (OPRA)
Office of Local Public Health
New Jersey Department of Health
P.O. Box 360
Trenton, NJ 08625-0360
For overnight or delivery service address, mail Form OC-34 to:
Custodian of Government Records (OPRA)
Office of Local Public Health, 4th Floor
New Jersey Department of Health
369 South Warren Street
Trenton, NJ 08625-0360
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in New Jersey?
Unless otherwise specified by law or regulation, the cost for copying a government record in the form of printed matter must be $0.05 per letter-size page or smaller and $0.07 per legal-size page or larger. If a public agency can establish that the actual cost of copying a government record exceeds the rates stipulated above, the public agency may charge the actual cost of duplication. The actual cost of copying the record, on which all copy fees are based, is the cost of materials and supplies used to create the duplicate and does not include labor or other overhead charges connected with creating the copy.
While access to electronic and non-printed records is typically offered for free, the public agency may charge for any necessary supplies, such as computer discs. Pursuant to NJSA 47:1A-5(b)(2), no fees may be charged to a crime victim for a copy of a record to which the victim is entitled to access.
Under NJSA 47:1A-f(f), OPRA specifies that the custodian of a record may collect a deposit to cover the expenses of reproducing documents obtained via an anonymous request if the custodian expects that reproducing the material will cost more than $5.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in New Jersey?
Per NJSA 47:1A-5(i), record custodians are required to approve or deny public record requests within seven business days, except in instances where the record is archived, in storage, or the request would significantly disrupt agency operations. According to NJSA 47:1A-5(e), prompt access to budgets, bills, vouchers, contracts, and public employee compensation and overtime information must be granted by the relevant agencies. Under the law, the failure of an agency or record custodian to respond within seven business days may be considered a denial of access.
You may take any of the following steps if you have been denied access to a public record under OPRA in New Jersey:
- Request the Government Records Council for an informal mediation via a written request in accordance with NJSA 47:1A-7. You may contact the GRC online, by e-mail at email@example.com, by mail at P.O. Box 819, Trenton, NJ 08625, or by phone at (866) 850-0511.
- File a formal action against the agency or record custodian with the Government Records Council pursuant to NJSA 47:1A-6
- File a suit with the Superior Court in New Jersey