Daniel’s Law is bad for N.J. journalists — and everyone who wants government accountability

July 17, 2023 7:08 am

Gov. Phil Murphy signing Daniel’s Law in Trenton on Nov. 20, 2020. (Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office).

The recent dustup between the editor of New Brunswick Today and that city’s police director exposes what a disaster Daniel’s Law is for public accountability, and what a mistake it would be to continue expanding the law.

Named for the slain son of a federal judge, Daniel’s Law was intended to keep judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers safe by allowing them to prevent the public from knowing where they live. But in the New Brunswick case, the law is being used —predictably — to halt legitimate debate about a public official’s residency.

Even worse, the same anti-transparency push that is allowing New Brunswick Police Director Tony Caputo to threaten journalist Charlie Kratovil with criminal charges for reporting that Caputo lives in Cape May will soon allow mayors, council people, zoning officials, and other local government officials to keep their home addresses a secret, too. State lawmakers already did that for themselves in February.

I talked to Jennifer Borg, a media law expert, about Daniel’s Law, and while she called it well-intentioned, she said it goes too far by criminalizing the reporting of truthful information about matters of public concern in violation of both the First Amendment and the state constitution.

Allowing reporters access to officials’ home addresses can result in important scrutiny of public employees’ conduct, she noted.

“Making home addresses public has helped reporters uncover that Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, was simultaneously registered to vote in three different states, that Justice Thomas sold property to Texas billionaire Harlan Crow and failed to disclose the transaction, and that George Santos lied about having a real estate portfolio. These stories show that allowing reporters access to home addresses can result in important scrutiny of public employees’ conduct,” Borg said.

Borg has represented the New Jersey Monitor in a legal matter.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed Daniel’s Law in 2020, making it a crime to post the addresses or phone numbers of judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, and their families. The bill signing came just four months after a disgruntled attorney who had appeared before U.S. District Judge Esther Salas went to her North Brunswick home and shot and killed her son, Daniel Anderl, 20, and wounded her husband, Mark Anderl. Salas was home at the time but not injured.

“So long as there are those who, for whatever twisted reason, target our judges, prosecutors, or law enforcement officers, Daniel’s Law will stand in their way,” Murphy said at the bill signing ceremony.

Flash forward to May 2023, when Caputo cited Daniel’s Law in a cease-and-desist notice he sent to Kratovil, who obtained Caputo’s Cape May address from a public record and had been reporting the street name — not the full address — at public meetings in New Brunswick to see if any city officials wanted to comment on why their police director lives 140 miles away.

Surely the architects of Daniel’s Law did not intend for it to become weaponized to prevent unflattering news stories about public officials from being published? I hope?

Luckily, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is coming to the public’s rescue. The group is suing New Brunswick and Caputo on behalf of Kratovil, saying that Daniel’s Law is unconstitutional as applied to journalists who obtain officials’ addresses through public access or reporting.

I’d go a step further: Daniel’s Law is entirely unworkable for everyone, not just journalists. If a citizen wants to speak out at a public meeting about their council person getting a big tax break or a town official winning a questionable zoning variance, they shouldn’t have to worry about that person filing criminal charges against them.

As Kratovil told me, “Trying to criminalize the spreading of factual information isn’t really a tenable thing in a free society. You can’t say, this fact is too sensitive to share so we’re going to lock you up if you insist on sharing it.”


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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”