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New Jersey Democrats Attack the Public’s Right to Government Records

The New Jersey state assembly, led by the Democratic Party, just tried to fast-track a bill that would have gutted the Open Public Records Act. This is a reminder that their party is an obstacle, not an ally, in the fight to preserve democracy.

Samuel Karlin

March 15, 2024
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With Democrats at the forefront, the New Jersey state assembly nearly just succeeded at essentially gutting the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Recently the state assembly attempted to fast-track a bill which journalists, unions, and concerned residents of the state have voiced opposition to. Due to the public backlash, the assembly announced that it will hold off on moving the bill forward in order to amend it. This is an important concession, but far from a defeat of the legislation.

OPRA was passed in 2002 to guarantee the public’s right to some government records. The bill the NJ assembly just tried to pass would have greatly limited what records could be available to the public. It would have given officials more power to redact information in records and exempt “draft” documents and “metadata” such as email logs from public access. The bill also would have discouraged individuals from suing the state if it resists OPRA requests. Many OPRA requests only succeed when individuals filing them sue the state. The bill would have forced individuals to pay the legal fees if the state rules against their OPRA requests. This would discourage individuals and groups, including reporters, unions, activists, and researchers, from following through with a request.

Whatever reforms the assembly makes to the bill, the initial draft and the attempt to rush it along should make it abundantly clear that the intention of the legislation is to keep the public from accessing government records. The only reason politicians are on the backfoot now is because people from across New Jersey packed the state capital in Trenton to voice opposition, and people throughout the state are paying attention.

Journalists and news outlets throughout New Jersey have been highlighting how they rely on OPRA to expose government corruption. They have been joined by regular residents who have used OPRA to access information officials wanted to hide, and by unions which rely on OPRA in order to more effectively engage in collective bargaining. Just about every major civil liberties NGO also denounced the bill.

It should not be lost on anyone that this attack on basic democratic legislation was led by the Democrats. This party has the gall to tell people to vote for them as a bulwark against authoritarianism. Of course, the Republicans are also just as corrupt, and Trump absolutely will attack democracy if he gets the chance as president. But from this attack on OPRA to the recent militarization of NYC subways, Democrats are showing just how eager they are to attack basic democratic norms.

This attack on OPRA also cannot be separated from the attacks on the movement for Palestine. In New Jersey alone, congressional Democrats have publicly chastised colleges for not cracking down harder on free speech and called in feds to investigate a high school walkout. Activists and librarians in Newark are currently fighting a ban on a book by a Palestinian author. In Democrat-run towns throughout New Jersey, Zionists are getting away (in fact they’re being empowered by Democrat-run town councils and boards of education) with harassing their neighbors including minors and anti-racist teachers. No wonder the state assembly feels emboldened to further wage war on the public’s basic rights.

Fighting for Our Rights Means Fighting Independently from the Democrats

With the Far Right on the rise and the real possibility of a second Trump term, all those who oppose authoritarianism and attacks on the oppressed absolutely need to prepare to fight for our democratic rights. But as the Democrats in New Jersey and throughout the country are showing, we cannot count on them to fight for our rights. In fact, we should expect them to work with the Far Right on repressing us and paving the way for further authoritarianism.

Those saying that the bill has been defeated are celebrating prematurely. The bill is being “reformed” and the politicians who wrote the original version are likely hoping that people pay less attention to the new version. NGOs and some elected officials will continue telling us to spend our time calling our representatives and trust that we can change these politicians’ minds. Their strategy is to use people’s outrage to “pressure” the state into functioning more democratically. This directs opposition away from disruptive mobilization and back into the institutions that are being used by politicians to restrict our rights.

We cannot wait and hope that the new version of this bill will take the public’s concerns into consideration. Nor can we hope that it will be the last attack on our rights. This is just one episode in an onslaught of anti-democratic maneuvers by the state. In order to really make sure our rights are maintained, working people in particular need institutions that can mobilize and disrupt the normal functioning of the state so that it has no choice but to take us into consideration. And we need to connect individual attacks like the anti-OPRA bill to the larger advance of the state against the public.

It’s important that a coalition of unions played a leading role in opposing the bill by issuing a joint statement. But statements, while important, won’t be enough. Unions need to mobilize their membership to join protests and use methods that show that it’s the workers of New Jersey, not politicians, who make our state run and can shut it down. This means organizing walkouts, pickets, and striking until the bill is repealed.

Plenty of people in New Jersey are furious that politicians are pulling such an anti-democratic maneuver. The fight against this bill has the potential to unite many different communities in New Jersey against an attack on all of our rights. With the right strategy, we can show the whole country what it looks like to wage a combative defense of our rights, independent of the two parties of capital which constantly attack these rights.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel Karlin is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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