TRENTON, N.J. – A New Jersey reporter says state officials want him to sign an agreement before allowing him to publish limited details from a child welfare complaint he obtained, but he has refused in a case involving a 5-year-old boy found with drugs in school twice in a month.
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A court hearing scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed, leaving in place an order that bars the Trentonian newspaper from publishing details from the complaint. Government lawyers sought the injunction against the newspaper, saying child welfare complaints must be kept confidential under state law.
The newspaper and open government advocates say that the judge's order is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
The newspaper is negotiating with the state, but reporter Isaac Avilucea says that he has refused to sign an agreement.
"They're basically criminalizing reporting, which is really a bigger issue in this case," said Avilucea, who said he obtained the report from the boy's mother.
The Trentonian reported in October that the boy, whom it did not name, was placed into foster care after he was found with crack cocaine. A month earlier, his father and another woman were charged after the boy was found with 30 packets of heroin.
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New Jersey's law on confidentiality of child abuse records says that anyone who releases them can be imprisoned for up to three years and fined up to $1,000.
A spokesman for the state attorney general's office declined to comment on the case this week.
Jennifer Borg, formerly the top lawyer for The Record newspaper and a government transparency advocate, says that Judge Craig Corson's order is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
"I think the Supreme Court has made it clear that the press cannot be prohibited from publishing truthful information, particularly where they lawfully obtained that information," Borg said. "Even if they want to go after the person who leaked it, the press cannot be held liable."
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the government cannot prevent the press from publishing information except in extreme circumstances involving a clear and present danger.
David Bralow, an attorney for the Trentonian, said after the complaint was filed that it's outrageous for the state to block publication of the information.
"This is not even a hard case, this is simply the imposition of a prior restraint to restrain the Trentonian from publishing information of significant public concern," Bralow said. "And that the state in order to do so has to enunciate a compelling state interest that would be akin to troop movements in time of war."