The Supreme Court’s Firemen’s Assn. Opinion Is A Victory For Privacy Rights

I recently presented a seminar to a large group of government attorneys and record custodians on OPRA’s privacy provision. One of the themes of my presentation was that the courts have issued only a handful of precedential opinions on this aspect of OPRA, providing agencies with little guidance on how to handle privacy issues.

Coincidentally, at practically the same time I was making my presentation, the Supreme Court issued an important opinion on OPRA’s privacy exemption, Matter of NJ State Firemen’s Assn Obligation to Provide Relief Applications. As I predicted after the oral argument of this case, the Court came down firmly on the side of privacy in this case, and denied the request for disclosure of a firefighter’s relief award.

This opinion is especially notable because it shows that the Court gave heavy weight to the privacy interests that individuals have in their personal financial information.  The Court emphasized the strong need to protect these privacy interests and saw no real public interest in access to the information in question.

It can no longer be said that there’s a lack of judicial guidance on OPRA and privacy. The Supreme Court has clarified that privacy interests must be favored by public agencies, despite OPRA’s general policy of public access to information held by the government.

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