Journalist Charles Kratovil lost his press freedom case this week, but then again, maybe he didn’t.
Sure, the judge ruled against Kratovil’s request to nullify a “cease and desist” letter threatening legal action if he writes a story identifying the home address of New Brunswick Police Director Anthony J. Caputo. This is an issue because Caputo lives two hours-plus away from New Brunswick in Cape May. Caputo also sits on the city’s Parking Authority.
However, Judge Joseph Rea in Superior Court, Middlesex County, and even lawyers representing various law enforcement agencies, acknowledged that Kratovil could publish the simple fact that Caputo lives in Cape May without noting the actual street address.
“The matter of public significance is that Mr. Caputo resides approximately 130 miles away from New Brunswick,” the judge said, sounding like an editor.
“This story is about distance. It’s not about a specific location.”
By any objective analysis, the judge had a point.
Media sites do not normally publish actual street addresses when identifying hometowns of individuals.
In the case at hand, the “news” is that the police director lives so far out of town. This raises an accusation, as was acknowledged in court, that this could be a “no show” job. That is certainly a matter of public interest for Kratovil, who operates a local news site called New Brunswick Today.
The case got to court because of Daniel’s Law.
This legislation was passed after a 2020 home invasion killed the son of a federal judge. It allows just about all law enforcement personnel – judges, the police, prosecutors etc. – to shield their home addresses from public records.
In the case at hand. Kratovil got Caputo’s address from election officials in Cape May, where he was registered to vote. The journalist argued through his attorney, Alexander Shalom of the ACLU, that he should be able to publish information legally obtained.
The judge agreed that Kratovil did nothing unlawful, but strongly endorsed Daniel’s Law, saying protecting law enforcement officials was a government responsibility of the highest order.
So, the judge refused to block the city’s letter.
The letter itself caused some debate.
Kratovil’s lawyer said it was threatening; attorneys for the city said it merely explained the provisions of Daniel’s Law.
There is some middle ground here.
As the judge observed, a story saying police director Caputo lives out of town – in Cape May – presumably could be written as long as the street address is not included.
But that may not happen anytime soon.
Kratovil’s attorney is appealing this week’s ruling, so there’s more to come on this.
This was a technical legal argument before the judge; the Pentagon Papers even got a few mentions.
But outside the courtroom, there are always practical considerations.
And whether New Brunswick Today writes about this or not, those who care know by now that the police director and a parking authority member lives in Cape May, not New Brunswick.