To the Editor:
In its lawsuit with Save the Dinky, Inc., Princeton University has demanded copies of all written communications between all representatives of Save the Dinky, Inc. and all Princeton Borough employees, including elected office holders, since January 2006, regarding the proposed movement of the Dinky terminus 460 feet south.
The University’s legal counsel admitted that the demand is a litigation strategy to discover potentially embarrassing communications between Borough residents and their elected representatives. While that strategy may possibly advance the University’s private litigation goals, it imposes substantial cost on taxpayers and infringes on the constitutional right of the public to petition its elected representatives. This letter is to publicly request that the University withdraw its demand.
Aside from its unconstitutional dimension, the University’s demand over-reaches: it will require potentially dozens of persons employed by the Borough to search their records for communications for more than six years, comprising thousands of emails and other documents. Such a broad request will adversely impact the functioning of Borough government and cost thousands of dollars, simply to advance the University’s private litigation interest.
But the University’s demand also violates the federal and state constitutional guarantees of the right-of-petition government. If every communication between a Borough resident and an elected representative is subject to University inspection and attack simply because it references the Dinky, will Borough residents have confidence that they can freely communicate (petition) their elected representatives?
No. And that’s why the University’s demand is unconstitutional; it cannot but chill Borough residents’ First Amendment rights.
The University’s demand for documents is disguised as a request under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, a progressive statutory program that protects openness in government. But the demand is not for disclosure of documents pertaining to any governmental action; instead, it is for the disclosure of private communication between elected office holders and their constituents. Thus, the OPRA policy of open government is not advanced by the University’s demand. The only goal advanced by the demand is the University’s own private interest in defeating Save the Dinky in litigation.
If every constituent private communication with his or her elected representative is subject to inspection by private litigants simply because the communication may touch on a public issue, constituents would be reluctant to be free and frank in their communications with their elected representatives. Thus, the University’s demand is an unconstitutional exercise of its OPRA rights and a chilling exercise of legal power that the community should resist.
Member, Princeton Borough Council