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Murphy signs controversial bill tightening public records laws

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(The Center Square) – New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is being criticized for signing a bill that critics say will gut the state’s open records laws by restricting the types of documents the government can release to the public.

The legislation, signed by Murphy on Wednesday, updates the state’s Open Public Records Act, allows the state and local government to charge commercial interests more for producing records, authorizes state agencies to file lawsuits against requesters accused of interrupting “government function” and ends a requirement for towns to pay attorneys’ fees when they lose court challenges over denied records requests.

Murphy, a Democrat, said he understands the disappointment of social justice, labor and other groups that objected to the bill and had urged him to veto the legislation.

“If I believed that this bill would enable corruption in any way, I would unhesitatingly veto it,” Murphy said in a statement outlining his rationale for signing the bill. “After a thorough examination of the provisions of the bill, I am persuaded that the changes, viewed comprehensively, are relatively modest.”

Murphy said the debate over the bill has played out “in a moment where our democracy feels more fragile than ever” with the indictment of former Republican President Donald Trump on charges that he incited the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, and federal bribery charges against New Jersey’s Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez. He said that has prompted New Jerseyans “across the political spectrum” to “feel deeply betrayed and outraged.”

“If I believed that this bill would enable corruption in any way, I would unhesitatingly veto it,” Murphy wrote.

But the move drew immediate criticism from open government groups who say the changes deliver a blow to transparency in the state.

“This is a dark day for our democracy — one that voters will not soon forget,” the League of Women Voters of New Jersey posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Wednesday.

The legislation is the latest tightening of New Jersey’s public records laws, including a 2022 law that blocks public disclosure of the home addresses of state judges and law enforcement officers.

The measure, called Daniel’s Law, came in response to the 2020 murder of Daniel Anderl, who was shot and killed by an attorney and self-proclaimed “anti-feminist” who state prosecutors say was targeting Anderl’s mother, U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas.

Last year, lawmakers expanded the law to allow public officials on their annual financial disclosure forms to list only the town and county where they own homes, not other details.

But a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, alleges that the state statute known as “Daniel’s law” is unconstitutional and “creates a chilling fear of criminal and civil prosecution” for journalists and other fact-gatherers seeking to learn more about their elected officials.

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