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For the Record: What’s next for public records law in New Jersey and Arkansas?

Written by
Edited by Derek Kravitz

In last week’s For the Record column, we covered the state of proposed public-records legislation in Colorado and Kentucky and how they could change how public records are accessed there. This week, we’re turning our attention to New Jersey and Arkansas, which also has active bills in their state legislatures that could end up modernizing each states’ public-record laws.

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New Jersey

What the bill would do:

New Jersey Senate Bill 2930 would create a series of new obstacles to the state’s Open Public Records Act, or OPRA.

At its core, the bill would create a brand new definition of what is a public record. This would redefine a “record” to exclude any draft material,”including notes generated and used to prepare final reports, documents, or records.”

Much like Colorado’s “vexatious requester” bill, the bill would also allow states agencies to issue a “protective order limiting the number and scope of requests the requestor may make or order,” if they believe the purpose of the request is “to harass a public agency, or to substantially interrupt government function.”

Smaller changes include a new requirement that records custodians ““redact from that record any information which discloses the social security number, credit card number, [unlisted] telephone number, or driver license number of any person.”

The bill also appropriates $4 million for the Department of Community Affairs “to provide grants to political subdivisions of the State to make government records available to the public electronically” and another $4 million to “the Department of Community Affairs for the operations of the Government Records Council.”

Why it was introduced:

Sponsored by state Sen. Paul A. Sarlo (D-Bergin), the OPRA legislation was introduced in March as lawmakers “have blamed commercial requesters for blitzing municipalities with so many requests they’ve had to hire more staff. Supporters of amending the law also cite privacy concerns,” reports the New Jersey Monitor.

Sarlo has previously claimed that there has been an “uptick in ‘creepy’ requests by people requesting police body camera footage and similar things to exploit vulnerable women and children, although he couldn’t cite specifics nor quantify that,” the Monitor has reported.

How Freedom of Information advocates view the legislation:

The New Jersey Legislature faced major criticism from transparency groups over the proposed rehaul of the state’s Open Public Records Act, with many criticizing lawmakers for fast-tracking the bill; The bill was introduced by Sarlo and sent to committee within a week.

“While we agree that OPRA, which became law in 2002, should be updated to reflect changes in technology in the 22 intervening years, the recent proposed amendments that were introduced on March 4 and heard in committee on March 11, would have harmed transparency and carried many unintended consequences,” said Walter Leurs, president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.

Leurs also criticized language in the amendment that would potentially create more obstacles for requesters.

“The language in the amendment that would potentially reduce fee-shifting for prevailing requestors is regressive because such language will reduce access to lawyers who would represent people who otherwise could not afford to pay even the $300 filing fee for an OPRA lawsuit,” he said.

What’s next:

In a recent development, New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said he would pull the bill from the Assembly Appropriations Committee’s agenda in order to work on “various amendments to ensure we get the bill right.”

“We will take the time needed to meet with various stakeholders to modernize OPRA in a way that protects the public from having their personal information, driver’s license numbers, and other sensitive information available for anyone to see,” Couglin wrote in a statement on X.

The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government told MuckRock that they are “working with the Legislature to craft revisions to the proposed amendments that would modernize OPRA and serve the interests of all parties and the public.”


What the bill would do:

While many states are aiming to curtail access to public records, two proposed ballot measures in Arkansas would make government transparency a constitutional right in that state and prohibit the state legislature from passing any laws curtailing government transparency without a statewide vote.

The Arkansas Government Disclosure Amendment would establish “the right of the citizens of Arkansas to government transparency.”

This includes preventing the state’s General Assembly from making significant changes to public records law. In the amendment, the General Assembly “may only propose a law concerning government transparency by referring a bill adopted by a two-thirds majority vote of both the House and the Senate to be determined by the citizens at the next general election.”

The amendment would also allow for the state to “be sued for failure to comply with transparency law.”

Separately, a proposed government disclosure act would repeal Arkansas Code § 6-13-619(e), which concerns “the ability of a school board, superintendent, and attorney to meet secretly,” and would create a formal definition of a public meeting. The act would define a public meeting as “communication between two or more voting or nonvoting members of a governing body for the purpose of exercising a responsibility, authority, power, or duty of the governing body on any matter on which official action will foreseeably be taken.”

Why it was introduced:

The group, Arkansas Citizens for Transparency, formed in October in order to create a new constitutional amendment to protect government transparency and public records, following Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s successful attempts to change the state’s public records law.

In September, Sanders called for a special legislative session that ultimately led to the governor signing Senate Bill 10 into law. The law will shield public access from “all records and communications concerning the planning or provision of security services to the governor and other state elected officials.”

In response, Arkansas Citizens for Transparency proposed ballot language in November to create a proposed amendment protecting government transparency. After multiple rejections from the attorney general, and the group dropping a lawsuit, the nonpartisan group received permission from Attorney General Tim Griffin to collect signatures for The Arkansas Government Disclosure Amendment and Act of 2024.

How Freedom of Information advocates view the legislation:

Unlike other changes to state public records law that have been proposed by lawmakers and elected officials, the Arkansas Government Disclosure Amendment and Act of 2024 was created and proposed by Freedom of Information advocates themselves.

In the first statement from the the Arkansas Citizens for Transparency Constitutional Amendment Drafting Committee, the organization says its “guiding principle throughout the draft process has been to preserve and protect government transparency in Arkansas and to put its future in the hands of the people of Arkansas.”

What’s next:

According to the Arkansas Advocate, Arkansas Citizens for Transparency will need to collect 72,563 signatures by July 5 from registered state voters in order for the act to appear on the November ballot and 90,704 signatures for the proposed amendment.

The Update

  • West Virginia health department sanctioned over deleted emails: U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Eifert issued sanctions against West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources for failing to preserve emails for an ongoing lawsuit over alleged mistreatment of foster children, reports Amelia Knisely in West Virginia Watch.

  • Tale of two requesters: A new study by David Cuillier from the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida College of Journalism finds that public-interest requesters, including journalists, academics, nonprofits and citizens, each reported a significantly different experience during their requests. As a group, they reported a lower likelihood of receiving records, than for-profit requesters, such as commercial requesters and lawyers.

  • Police settlement set new standards for Minnesota requesters: Five families who sued Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for information on relatives killed by police have set new standards for how the agency responds to similar data requests. The new settlement terms require the agency to provide a one-page document when families request data about deceased relatives, reports Kyeland Jackson for the *Minneapolis Star Tribun*e.

FOIA Finds

  • AI-powered gun detection tool used in Virginia public schools: “MuckRock’s Virginia resident” Tom Nash obtained the Appomattox County Public Schools’ contract and other onboarding documents related to ZeroEyes, which uses AI to tap into security cameras to detect guns. The documents and the request are available on MuckRock.

  • Building a database of Army deaths: The Army Times demonstrates how they used the Freedom of Information Act to build a database of soldier deaths covering 2019, 2020 and 2021. The database revealed that Brigade Combat Teams experienced higher suicide rates than the rest of the Army.

  • Investigation into Treasury employee’s actions during Jan. 6: Records obtained by Business Insider’s Jason Leopold revealed a report from the Department of the Treasury’s inspector general, who investigated a Treasury employee who broke through police barricades on Jan. 6, 2021. The employee remained “there for two hours while rioters ransacked the buildings.”