The Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Gilleran is important for many reasons. Of course, the Court’s specific holding–that there is no right of access under OPRA to video footage from building security surveillance cameras–is significant. This ruling is of great public interest, as it settles an open issue under OPRA and, more crucially, ensures the security of public buildings in New Jersey.
The opinion is also extremely important because it establishes, for the first time, how to interpret OPRA’s critical exemptions for safety and security. The Court said that a “commonsense” standard governs the meaning of the exemptions.
The requestor and other parties argued that the security exemptions make all security camera footage presumptively open to the public, with the public body having the burden of reviewing every frame of the video and proving that a specific portion (or portions) of the tape would create a security risk if disclosed.
The Court rejected this construction of OPRA, and instead held that all video footage is exempt under the security provisions. The Court emphasized that instead of accepting the requestor’s interpretation of the statute, “[t]he security exceptions will be applied in a commonsense manner that fulfills the very purpose of having security-based exceptions, and we will do so mindful of present day practical challenges to maintenance of security in public facilities.”
I think this means, as a practical matter, that OPRA typically precludes disclosure of records that are related in some way to security concerns. In other words, OPRA requestors generally are not going to be able to gain access to records that have to do with security. Indeed, the Court suggested that the common law right to know, rather than OPRA, should be the route taken by requestors who seek access to security-related material.