The Case of Kratovil on the Case

NEW BRUNSWICK – Local journalist Charles Kratovil wants to write a story about the city’s police director,  Anthony A. Caputo, living out of town. Far out of town, in fact, – about 140 miles away in Cape May.

When Kratovil sought comment from the city council back in May, the response was a “cease and  desist” letter warning him that a story with such information would violate the law.

Kratovil filed suit, helped by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights.

A hearing on the case Wednesday in state Superior Court failed to clarify things, but it did raise a question.

What does the state Attorney General think about this?

So far, he’s not saying.

And it was the AG’s silence that prompted Judge Joseph Rea to delay hearing the merits of the case until Sept. 21. The plaintiff is asking the court to restrain the city from enforcing the cease and desist letter. That would allow Kratovil to write the story in the New Brunswick Today, an online news site.

Rea rebuffed the plaintiff’s strenuous argument for a temporary restraining order, saying, “You may ultimately win, but I want a full record.

The AG’s office has 60 days from the filing of the suit, which was in mid-July, to weigh in. That has to happen by the Sept. 21 hearing.

The Attorney General’s office can support either side, or decline to get involved at all.

Wednesday’s hearing was filled mostly with procedural arguments, but make no mistake, this case has a lot to do with freedom of the press.

The idea of a police director living a great distance from the city he serves is legitimate news. The  news value is enhanced when you consider that Caputo also sits on the New Brunswick Parking Authority.

The impetus for the cease and desist letter comes from Daniel’s Law, which was adopted after a gunman invaded the New Jersey home of a federal judge and killed her son,

Daniel Anderl, in 2020. The law prohibits the home address and phone number of active and retired judges, prosecutors and members of law enforcement from being publicly disclosed.

In the case at hand, Kratovil obtained Caputo’s home address from voting records in Cape May County.

That’s a key part of the case – the notion that a reporter should be able to report what is “public record” – data released to him by a government agency.

Another issue is whether Kratovil intended to publish Caputo’s actual address, or just the fact he resides in Cape May. There’s a big difference between saying someone “lives in Cape May” and publishing a street address.

Various police and law enforcement organizations have entered the case on the side of Caputo and New Brunswick. They see the case as a direct assault on the constitutionality of Daniel’s Law.

That’s an understandable position, but the case is also about the basic right of citizens to know important information about a public official.

Kratovil’s attorney stressed that this case has gone on for a long time already. He wanted a decision on Wednesday, but the judge said the matter needs to be “stalled” until the AG takes a position.

Many public officials enjoy talking about how they cherish a “free press” and the right of journalists to report the news unencumbered.

But they often don’t mean it.

So, it will be quite interesting to see what the Attorney General’s office will say about this matter.

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