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Advocates for New Jersey media organizations are opposing legislation that would shield from public view records relating to students and other minors. The bill, S-642, sponsored by state Sen. Peter Inverso, R-Mercer, and approved by the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, would bar release of such records unless the municipality passes its own access policy and obtains the parent’s written consent to disclosure. The Assembly has passed another bill, A-917, sponsored by Gary Guear, D-Mercer, that would restrict nonprofit groups but not municipalities. The bill failed in the Senate last year, and efforts are underway to engineer a compromise. The New Jersey Press Association complains that Inverso’s bill — covering “any record held by a municipality or any instrumentality within or created by a municipality or combination of municipalities” — would effectively prevent media from reporting on school activities and youth sports events. “Unless his bill is changed, this means no more box scores for youth athletics, no more lists of those who have made the Honor Roll, no more scholarship winners’ names,” John O’Brien, executive director of the Press Association, said in an e-mail to newspaper editors. O’Brien says the bill’s broad language takes in school districts, but Inverso’s chief of staff, Steve Cook, says the senator does not intend for the law to restrict press coverage about children’s sports or academics. Rather, he wants to better inform parents when information about their children is disseminated. “It may be a little bit onerous, but protecting the kids is more important than the need to get that information out,” says Cook. Inverso’s bill was prompted by a 2000 incident, when a candidate for local office in Ewing obtained names and addresses of children in a town recreation program and sent campaign literature to their homes. Media lawyer Bruce Rosen calls the bill “an overblown reaction to a very small, isolated problem. … It could cause significant First Amendment issues down the road if newspapers are unable to get information they are entitled to,” says Rosen, a partner at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen, Carvelli & Walsh in Chatham, N.J. William Kearns, counsel to the State League of Municipalities, calls the Inverso bill reasonable and says the media’s concerns are unfounded. Kearns says legislation creating such exceptions is an inevitable consequence of passage of the Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1. OPRA makes public documents available unless specifically exempted. “People will be coming up with all kinds of areas that the Legislature did not anticipate,” Kearns says. “Any time a new law gets adopted, it becomes a challenge to make it work right.” Privacy advocate Grayson Barber says the Inverso bill is consistent with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. 1232(g), which protects confidentiality of school records, and with the general proposition that information about individuals should be confidential. “I think the question we have to ask is whether it serves any legitimate purpose to disclose the names and addresses of children,” says Barber, a Princeton solo. “If the records shed light on governmental operations, then it may serve the purpose of OPRA to disclose them. It’s a little hard to imagine how names on a school honor roll or children’s sports team really serves [OPRA's] purpose.” Barber and Kearns are on the 13-member Privacy Study Commission that the Legislature created with the enactment of OPRA, assigned to report on ways to protect individuals’ rights. Barber says she hopes the group will study Inverso’s bill. The measure appears to be the first of its kind in the nation. At the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., which monitors laws on access to government records nationwide, attorney Rebecca Daugherty says she is unaware of such a law in any other state. Daugherty says the Reporters Committee opposes blanket category restrictions on access to public records. “The better rule is to have some kind of balancing test,” she says. “There needs to be a very good case made for privacy before we keep this kind of record secret.” Inverso’s next step is to meet with the Press Association to discuss its concerns, but O’Brien says the Press Association considers S-642 so flawed that he will not discuss revisions. Such a restriction on access to records “takes a giant step back from OPRA, which says this kind of information is public. Now, they’re going to allow municipalities to maybe give it away, maybe not,” O’Brien says. A compromise might be struck between Inverso and Assembly sponsor Guear, who represent the same district. Guear says Inverso, the prime sponsor of Megan’s Law, convinced other senators to vote against A-917 out of a desire to “have his name first” on the legislation. Cook, Inverso’s aide, denies that happened, saying the Senate voted down Guear’s bill unanimously because it never passed a committee and was posted erroneously. The Press Association fears that a merged Guear-Inverso bill could be passed in short order, since it would not require further committee review, says director O’Brien.

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