Suppressing the Rights of Parents and Criminalizing Journalism

A Statement from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists

Late last week a judge in Trenton made an important ruling, upholding the free speech rights of parents and journalists. At this moment, however, that ruling is under assault from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. Very soon a gag order could be re-imposed.

We don’t use the word “assault” lightly. Since the judge’s ruling, the Attorney General’s office has made non-stop appeals to the trial judge, the Appellate Division and the New Jersey Supreme Court. They’ve been shut down each time. For most of us, after three strikes, you’re out. But the Attorney General’s office has unlimited resources, if the governor wants it to, and it is wasting taxpayer money by repeatedly appealing the ruling.
It is a complex case, but it boils down to this: A parent disagreed with findings in a state report about their child and family. The parent lacked the money to hire a lawyer, but sought to get The Trentonian newspaper to cover the matter in court. The Trentonian sent reporter Isaac Avilucea to the courthouse, where the parent gave him documents related to the case, documents which the state then claimed were illegally obtained.
The state then sought an extraordinary prior restraint order against the newspaper and threatened Avilucea with criminal charges. Avilucea stood firm and the state backed-down on the criminal threat, but a prior-restraint order was in effect from late October until late March. After a lengthy series of hearings, a Mercer County judge ruled that that Avilucea obtained the report legally and lifted the injunctions against him and The Trentonian. That should have ended things but the state now seems obsessed with spending tax money to suppress free speech in this case.
We wonder what the state is trying to hide. At this point, the state itself has made the child’s identify clear to anyone who looks at the matter. Why is the state so fearful of further reporting?
The New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists (NJ-SPJ) is very much an interested party in this case, having sought and obtained money from our national organization to help fund Mr. Avilucea’s defense.
He is a member of our organization and the recipient of our signature “Courage Under Fire” award. Since the events in the courthouse last October, he has been diagnosed with testicular cancer and he is about to enter a fifth round of chemo-therapy. Continued actions against him seem pointless and even cruel. At this point he is entering a clinical trial to which his doctor has referred him. Isaac observed his 28th birthday last week.
As sobering as this situation is, there are equally serious legal and moral issues at stake:
  • Should a parent be barred from sharing a report, from a taxpayer-funded agency, with a journalist?
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Time to make your voice heard on plan to create NJ Civic Info Consortium

For about two years now, Mike Rispoli, the Journalism Campaign director for the national advocacy group Free Press, has been traveling around the Garden State drawing attention to New Jersey’s local news crisis and pitching the idea of using some of the proceeds from the sale of the state’s public television licenses to do something about it.

That battle cry has evolved into a specific proposal to create a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a joint initiative of the state’s four leading research universities to fund projects designed to boost the state’s news ecosystem. The theory is that the state is selling assets that were meant to better inform people, so the money from their sale should go back to that intent.

The proposition depends on legislative approval. And now that it’s budget season at the New Jersey statehouse, the time has come for citizens to tell lawmakers what they think of the idea.

The Free Press is encouraging citizens to attend state Assembly Budget Committee hearings that are taking place this month to put their opinions on the record. (Full disclosure: Jane Primerano, SPJ Region 1 director, and I plan to testify in support of these efforts; I am employed as a lecturer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, one of the four universities involved in the consortium.)

As proposed, the consortium would work with Montclair State University, Rutgers University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rowan University to fund collaborative journalism as well as public information and media innovation projects. To read more about the proposal, click here. To learn more about The Free Press, click here and here. To see the schedule of state Assembly Committee Budget hearings and their locations, click here.



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Skills Fest 2017: What you need to succeed in today’s job market

Want to learn how to shoot and edit video? Tell an audio story? Use Instagram and Snapchat in a story?
Then SkillsFest 2017 has what you need and more. This half-day set of workshops on Saturday, April 22 at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark will teach the skills that are needed in today’s job market.
Hosted by the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, SkillsFest brings together some of the best professional in New York metropolitan area.
Among the speakers are:
  • Tom Franklin, multimedia journalism instructor at Montclair State University.
  • Karen Rouse, New Jersey reporter for WNYC-FM
  • Sam Shefler, staff writer for Media Shift
  • Frank Runyeon, freelance multimedia journalist
  • John Ensslin, multimedia journalist for The Record.
Among the other skills to be taught: how to stage a Facebook Live broadcast and how to produce a podcast.
Attendees can choose up to three classes, which will be taught at NJIT’s Newark campus from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
WiFi will be provided. Attendees must bring their own laptop and smart phone.
Cost of the program is $45 for students and $85 for professionals. Admission includes a box lunch and a one-year membership (or a one-year renewal) in SPJ, the nation’s oldest and largest journalism advocacy groups. Click here for more info and to register.…
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Public Records forum postponed until March 20

Please note that NJ FOG’s OPRA forum has been postponed for a week because of the blizzard that has been predicted. 

In honor of Sunshine week, our friends at the NJ Foundation for Open Government are holding a free open government seminar in Camden County on Monday, March 20 March 13, 2017 from 7-9 p.m. at the Bellmawr Baptist Church, 328 Creek Road, Bellmawr. The discussion will focus on New Jersey’s Open Public Records and Meetings Acts (OPRA and OPMA).  Attorney Walter Luers, who specializes in OPRA and OPMA matters, will be speaking. Handouts and light refreshments will be provided. Be sure to bring your questions. To register, click here. For more information, email NJFOG at or call 732-992-6550.…

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