In a development that has raised concerns across various sectors including genealogy, journalism, and history, the State of New Jersey is considering amendments to its Freedom of Information law, known as the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). These amendments, introduced through bills S2930/A4045, aim to redefine the scope and accessibility of public records, potentially limiting public access to historical and genealogical data.

The proposed changes have sparked alarm among professionals and enthusiasts who rely on open access to public records for their research. Notably, the legislation seeks to broaden the definition of “personal identifying information,” which could significantly restrict the availability of essential records. Such constraints may inadvertently classify professional genealogists as “data brokers,” thereby complicating their work and potentially exposing them to legal challenges.

Another aspect of the proposed amendments is the exemption of “draft” documents from being considered public records. This introduces a subjective barrier that could enable governmental agencies to withhold information under the guise of drafts. Additionally, the amendments propose procedural obstacles that would delay the processing of records requests, further hindering public access to information.

The potential exemption of metadata from disclosure is particularly troubling for genealogical research. Metadata, often used in searchable indexes, is crucial for conducting comprehensive historical inquiries. If enacted, these changes could prevent the genealogy community from accessing new vital records indices from New Jersey, representing a significant departure from the successes achieved in recent years through OPRA.

Reclaim The Records, a non-profit organisation dedicated to obtaining and making public records freely available, has highlighted its previous successes under OPRA, including the release of over 100 years of New Jersey marriage indexes. These achievements underscore the importance of strong public records laws for genealogical research and public transparency. However, the proposed bill threatens to weaken these provisions, notably by altering the conditions under which plaintiffs in successful lawsuits against state agencies can recover attorney fees. This change could deter individuals and organisations from challenging wrongful denials of access to public records.

The draft legislation has been met with opposition from various groups, including the Association of Professional Genealogists, which emphasises the negative implications for genealogists and historical researchers. Reclaim the Records is urging the community to take action by contacting New Jersey legislators and the Governor to express their concerns about the potential impact of these amendments on access to historical records and government transparency.

As the debate over the proposed changes to OPRA continues, the outcome will significantly influence the future of genealogical research and public access to government records in New Jersey.

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