The municipality of Princeton and Mercer County have produced more than 1,500 pages of emails and other documents in response to public records requests and a lawsuit that was filed by Planet Princeton this summer regarding documents related to illegal dumping at the town’s sewer department facility on River Road in the northeastern section of Princeton near the border with Montgomery, Rocky Hill, and Kingston.
As part of the settlement, Mercer County has also agreed to pay $4,500 in legal fees to Walters Luers, the lawyer who represented Planet Princeton in the case. Under New Jersey law, if a citizen, group or journalist requests public records and must file a lawsuit to force a public agency to release the records, the citizen is entitled to legal fees.
Planet Princeton filed public records requests with the town of Princeton and Mercer County regarding the former municipal landfill, the town’s solar arrays, and the sewer department facility in July. The county and the municipality denied the records requests, citing the Mercer County Prosecutor’s investigation into illegal dumping at the sewer department. That investigation was triggered by a series of Planet Princeton stories. Both public agencies said they were ordered by the prosecutor not to release various records related to the sewer department. The municipality issued a blanket denial of Planet Princeton’s entire request, including records for the former landfill and solar arrays, even though the former landfill wasn’t part of the investigation.
“In light of the resolution of this case and in light of the NJIT decision, I hope that in the future records custodians will not be as reliant on prosecutors when making decisions about how to respond to OPRA requests,” said Luers.
This summer, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued a decision Wednesday in a public records case involving NJIT that is similar to Planet Princeton’s lawsuit against the town of Princeton and Mercer County. The precedent-setting decision was a major victory for journalists and public records advocates.
In 2015, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel Golden and publicist Tracy Locke were conducting research for Golden’s book, “Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities.” As part of the research, Golden and Locke request documents from public universities. Under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, they submitted three records requests to the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Many of NJIT’s documents that were responsive to the OPRA requests originated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI directed NJIT to withhold most of the records. The school withheld the records, claiming that the documents were exempt from disclosure. A lawsuit followed.
After the lawsuit was filed, NJIT released thousands of pages of records it had formerly deemed exempt, but the trial court denied legal fees. The court denied the fee motion, holding that no nexus existed between the lawsuit and the eventual release of records. The court was persuaded by NJIT’s position that it had acted reasonably in following the FBI’s direction.
The journalists were represented by New Jersey lawyer Bruce Rosen, a top lawyer in first amendment media law, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. On appeal, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s decision, and held that fee-shifting is mandatory, but also said records custodians can’t fail to fulfill their duties. If records custodians let a third party dictate their responses to OPRA requests, they are still responsible for legal fees if it turns out the records are not actually exempt.
Planet Princeton would like to thank all of the journalists and readers who have supported us so we could work to obtain these and other public records and challenge government officials’ records request denials in court. We couldn’t continue our reporting without your support.
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