The New Jersey Appellate Division has recently confirmed the public’s unfettered right to access government records, regardless of whether certain information produced falls outside a specific request.
New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 et seq.) (“OPRA”) permits members of the public to access public records maintained by government agencies, in order to ensure not only an informed citizenry but to minimize the evils inherent in a secluded governmental process. Under OPRA, a member of the public may file a request with a public agency for a “government record”, defined as any record that has been made, received, or kept on file in the course of official business or that has been received in the course of official business. There are 24 specific categories of documents that are exempt from production, including, deliberative materials, records within the attorney-client privilege, trade secrets or proprietary commercial or financial information, and criminal investigatory records.
Although public entities are exempt from producing confidential information, the New Jersey Appellative Division has recently ruled that custodians may not redact information they deem to be irrelevant in documents produced pursuant to an OPRA request. In American Civil Liberties Union of N.J. v. N.J. Div. of Crim. Justice, the court addressed the issue of whether a government agency has the authority to redact admittedly responsive documents in order to withhold information the agency deems to be outside the scope of the OPRA request, and found that it could not. The court held that if the redactions were not made pursuant to the statutorily recognized exemptions to disclose, or on a claim of confidentiality under the common law, information could not be redacted for irrelevancy.
The court noted that by redacting information deemed irrelevant, the custodian confers upon himself quasi-judicial powers which are based only on the custodian’s own notion of relevancy. The court concluded that no legal support backs this policy. The decision, therefore, confirms that the general public has a right to access governmental records regardless of whether responsive documents to an OPRA request contain some seemingly irrelevant information. Public agencies may not choose to withhold specific information when producing documents responsive to an OPRA request, because it deems that information irrelevant. This, according to the Appellate Division, would push back on the very purpose of OPRA.