The American Civil Liberties Union went to court Monday over a denied request for policies on Statehouse visitors who wear politically expressive buttons, pins and stickers.
The organization’s New Jersey chapter says the state police, which handles Statehouse security, improperly rejected its request under the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
The request was filed in response to reports that citizens wearing buttons and pins were told to check them at the door.
But a state police spokesman denies his office has a policy restricting such items and says he’s unaware of any such incidents at the Statehouse.
In fact, it’s the Legislature that made the rules — not the state police — and those rules expressly permit wearing buttons, pins and stickers, he says.
In a complaint filed in Mercer County Superior Court, American Civil Liberties Union v. New Jersey Division of State Police, the organization claims it received complaints in June that state troopers instructed visitors to remove their buttons and pins, leave them at the security desk and pick them up on the way out.
ACLU-NJ spokeswoman Katie Wang says the complainants were two politically active citizen groups.
Wang and Janie Byalik of Pashman Stein in Hackensack, the ACLU-NJ’s counsel in the suit, decline to identify the groups or indicate the nature of the buttons and pins their members were displaying.
The visitors’ alleged treatment was inconsistent with that of other, previous visitors who were allowed access while wearing politically expressive items, the ACLU-NJ claims.
Any requirement to remove such items before entry is not displayed at the Statehouse, or on the Legislature’s or state police websites, the organization says.
ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero sent a letter on June 26 to State Police Supt. Rick Fuentes, advising him of the incidents.
LoCicero requested copies of “any relevant policy or procedures on the subject of restricting access to people wearing buttons, pins or stickers,” citing constitutional free-expression concerns.
She also asked Fuentes to post any such policy and train security personnel on free-speech issues.
Detective Ismael Vargas, the agency’s OPRA custodian, denied the request on Aug. 13.
The materials sought “are not considered government records subject to public access” under N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1, an OPRA provision that lists materials exempt from disclosure, he wrote.
Vargas added that standing operating procedures (SOPs) and training materials are confidential under a regulation, N.J.A.C. 12:1E-3.2(a)(1).
The Attorney General’s office, in promulgating that regulation, stated that SOPs and training materials affect internal operations; provide insight into law enforcement techniques, legal strategy and other confidential information that could place lives at risk; and do not generally impact the public’s interaction with Department of Law and Public Safety agencies.
The regulation Vargas cited in the denial is “inappropriate and inapplicable” to the information LoCicero sought, Byalik wrote.
Policies governing expressive apparel don’t give insight into law enforcement techniques or pose security risks, but do affect how citizens interact with the department, the ACLU-NJ claims.
The suit seeks a declaration that the agency is in violation of OPRA and the common-law right of access, injunctive relief, a policy statement and training protocol to advise Statehouse personnel about freedom of expression, a requirement that the policy be posted at security stations, an order compelling production of any policies, attorney fees and costs, and other relief.
Lieut. Stephen Jones, a state police spokesman, calls the issue “a misunderstanding,” adding he’s “aware of no complaints where people were prohibited” from entering because they were wearing political buttons or stickers.
There’s no restrictive policy, Jones says, referring to rules adopted in 1997 by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission (JMC), a body created by the Legislature in 1992 and made up of members from various legislative offices. Those rules are publicly available and handed out at the Statehouse by state troopers on request, Jones says.
Rule no. 10, which prohibits bringing signs, posters, placards or banners inside, states: “Nothing herein shall prohibit a person from wearing a button, sticker or badge on the person’s clothing or from wearing a T-shirt inscribed with a written message or image on State Capitol Complex grounds or in any building adjacent to State Capitol Complex grounds.”
Because it’s not a state police rule, the OPRA request was incorrectly submitted to the agency, which had no obligation to provide the JMC rules, Jones adds.
But Byalik says the state police was required to furnish the JMC rules because the agency maintains and enforces those rules, even if it didn’t create them.
Byalik says the ACLU-NJ “will proceed with the lawsuit at the very least to make certain there are no other documents (policies, training materials, etc.) that State Police were referring to when they claimed that documents were confidential and to ensure there is proper training regarding the policies.”
Jones says there is no separate state police policy governing the issue.
Monday’s complaint was the ACLU-NJ’s second OPRA suit lodged against the state police in two weeks. On Sept. 17, the organization filed a suit over the denial of an OPRA request seeking information on the agency’s promotion policies.
Also, the ACLU-NJ — in a matter filed in June directly with the Appellate Division — is seeking invalidation of several OPRA regulations exempting from disclosure SOPs, training manuals, employment policies and other materials.