Whether New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act protects from public disclosure the names and addresses of individuals possessing a government-issued dog license.
Like many states, New Jersey requires dog owners to register their dog. Dog owners must provide their names, home addresses, and other personal information to government agencies to promote public safety. Ernest Bozzi, a business owner, sought a list of the names and addresses of dog owners in Jersey City through the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”) to advertise his electric dog fence services. The City refused Bozzi’s request, claiming that the requested information was protected by the OPRA’s privacy exemption. The trial court found that the OPRA did not protect names and addresses in dog license records from public disclosure and ordered the City to provide Bozzi with the requested information. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s order. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted the City’s petition for review.
The OPRA provides the public access to government records to promote government transparency. The law also contains a privacy provision requiring government agencies to withhold records when disclosure would violate an individual’s expectation of privacy. The OPRA does not explicitly exempt all name and address information in government records from disclosure, but does explicitly exempt names and addresses in certain circumstances.
The OPRA was enacted decades after the federal government transparency law, the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). Federal courts have long recognized a right to privacy in personal information contained in government records. Like the OPRA, FOIA has a privacy provision, Exemption 6, which similarly protects personal information from public disclosure. Numerous cases interpreting Exemption 6 have found a privacy interest in names and addresses in government records. When faced with the question of disclosure, courts balance the potential harm to privacy against the public’s need for the information. Because FOIA’s primary purpose is to shed light on government activities, the public interest in the requested records must provide some insight into the functioning of government. Courts have generally found that disclosure for purely commercial interests, without an accompanying public interest in the workings of government, would not serve the FOIA’s public interest in government transparency. Courts refuse to disclose names, addresses, and other personal information in these cases.
Ernest Bozzi made a number of public records requests to various local government agencies under the OPRA for dog license records. These records include the names and home addresses of individuals who have registered their dogs as required by law. Bozzi intended to use the information to advertise his invisible dog fence installation services across New Jersey.
The City refused to disclose the list of records based on the OPRA’s privacy exemption. The City emphasized that individuals were legally required to provide the information to the government and did not make the choice voluntarily. Moreover, Bozzi intended to use the names and addresses purely to solicit business; disclosure would not serve the public interest because it would not inform the public of government activities, the primary purpose of open records laws. The City also warned that Bozzi’s request was not limited to his own use of the information but also extended to other parties who could use it for any purpose after obtaining the list from Bozzi. The risk to individuals’ privacy in their names and addresses was significant, and the City argued that the OPRA, New Jersey Constitution, and U.S. Constitution exempted this kind of personal information from disclosure in this situation.
In May 2019, the trial court determined that public disclosure was proper under the OPRA and ordered the City to provide Bozzi with the requested information. The City appealed the order. In a brief opinion, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s determination. The court found that the issues and arguments raised mirrored those decided in an earlier case, Bozzi v. Borough of Roselle Park.
In Roselle Park, Bozzi had requested dog license records from another municipality, and the agency refused to disclose the information. The trial court agreed with the agency, reasoning that the licensees did not expect that information the government required to register their dog would be disclosed for other purposes. The appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision and found that Bozzi was entitled to the requested information under the OPRA. The court noted that the OPRA had numerous explicit exemptions, but name and home address information was not generally exempt. The court also noted that the Legislature did not amend the law to protect this information despite a Privacy Study Commission’s suggestion to do so. While the court recognized that disclosure would enable businesses to send unsolicited communications to anyone who obtained a dog license, it refused to find that individuals reasonably expected privacy in their names and addresses since people regularly receive unsolicited mail.
EPIC brings a unique perspective to this case, informed by its previous work on informational privacy and its extensive FOIA litigation experience. EPIC has filed amicus briefs in numerous cases concerning the right to privacy in personal information contained in government records. In these briefs, EPIC has consistently argued that the right to informational privacy protects personally identifying information contained in government records, broad public disclosure threatens that right, and courts should consequently refuse or limit disclosure. EPIC also frequently litigates FOIA cases when government agencies withhold information that would inform the public of government activities implicating privacy.