ACLU of New Jersey Announces Lawsuit Seeking Secret State Information on "Potential Threat Elements"

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
December 2, 2004 12:00 am

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Civil Liberties Advocates Fear Targeting of Political and Peace Groups

NEWARK, NJ — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today filed a lawsuit challenging the New Jersey Attorney General’s refusal to disclose information about individuals and organizations designated as “potential threat elements” (PTEs), including the criteria used by the state to make such determinations.

“We all want the police to protect us from real criminals and terrorists,” said Deborah Jacobs, ACLU of New Jersey Executive Director. “But the public should be able to find out whether resources and funds established to fight terrorism are being misused to target innocent Americans who have done nothing more than criticize the government or practice their religion.”

The designation of individuals or organizations as PTEs was required in connection with the application for Department of Homeland Security grant money. In order to obtain certain Homeland Security grants, municipalities that applied were required to identify at least 15 individuals or organizations as PTEs.

Earlier this year, the ACLU of New Jersey sent open public records requests to the 50 largest New Jersey municipalities to obtain documents disclosing the identification of, or criteria for designating, PTEs. While most municipalities had no such documents, eight municipalities responded with refusals to disclose their records, claiming they were exempt from disclosure under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). On Oct 4, 2004, Jacobs filed an OPRA request directly with the Office of the Attorney General. On October 19, 2004, the Office of the Attorney General responded, claiming that such records were exempt as “security measures or surveillance techniques” and that their disclosure would interfere with the ability to protect the state against acts of sabotage or terrorism.

“Our courts have ruled that ‘democracy dies behind closed doors’ and the public needs access to information like this to help guard against discrimination and harassment,” said Ronald Chen, Associate Dean of Rutgers Law School -Newark, the ACLU of New Jersey’s cooperating attorney in the case. “Since we know that the political beliefs of an organization can be taken into account by the state in determining who is a PTE, without disclosure of the full criteria there is no way organizations can be certain whether they are subject to designation as a PTE.”

The case is captioned Deborah Jacobs v. Peter Harvey, et al. It was filed in New Jersey Superior Court, Mercer County.

In a related action today, the national ACLU and its affiliates filed Freedom of Information Act requests in 10 states and the District of Columbia seeking information about the FBI’s use of Joint Terrorism Task Forces and local police to engage in political surveillance of political and religious organizations.

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