Today, the Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed a lower court decision that Rutgers University is not required to produce film of a December 5th, 2020 football game between Rutgers and Penn State pursuant to an Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”) exemption. On January 22, 2021, Rutgers received an OPRA request from plaintiff John Caroff, who said he wanted the film to show his thirteen-year-old daughter, whom he believes “possesses the necessary skill set for her to have considerable future career success as a football strategist and studying college football video advances her qualifications should she seek future employment with a college football staff or as part of the media covering college football."
Rutgers’s Custodian of Records, Jewell Battle, denied Caroff’s OPRA request in a February, 2021 email. She explained that the video was exempt from OPRA due to “trade secrets and proprietary commercial or financial information obtained from any source” and “competitive advantage.” Thus, on April 2, 2021, plaintiff Caroff filed a lawsuit against Rutgers and Battle, seeking to compel the University to disclose the Penn State game film.
Caroff made it clear that he was “not interested in commercializing it or uploading it to YouTube,” but wanted the video only to “educate his daughter.” Lower court Judge Alberto Rivas didn’t find Caroff's argument persuasive and ruled in favor of Rutgers, finding that OPRA’s proprietary information exemption applied and precluded disclosure of the video. The judge found that Rutgers did not “just give [the video] willy nilly to any person ho asks for it; it is within a defined universe.”
Today, the Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed Judges Rivas’s decision, holding that the video is exempt from OPRA disclosure. The court said, “[t]he purpose of OPRA is to maximize public knowledge about public affairs in order to ensure an informed citizenry and to minimize the evils inherent in a secluded process.” Further, the court discussed OPRA’s intended role in government transparency, which clearly doesn’t apply in this case. There are 23 explicit OPRA exemptions, including information deemed to be trade secrets and proprietary commercial or financial information.
Judge Rivas only held that the video was exempt as proprietary information, not as trade secret, which the appellate court agreed with. The Superior Court also agreed that requiring disclosure of game film would give an unfair advantage to Rutgers’s competitors, as they wouldn’t have to send out scouts to observe the games, for example. With that, the Superior Court of New Jersey ruled in favor of Rutgers University and Battle.
Ultimately, I respect this father doing whatever it takes to support his daughter's passion but agree with the court's ruling. The December 5, 2020 game between Rutgers and Penn State ended 23-7 in favor of the Nittany Lions. The teams combined for just 255 total yards through the air.
Jason Morrin is a recent graduate of Hofstra Law School. He was President of Hofstra’s Sports and Entertainment Law Society. He will be joining Zumpano, Patricios, & Popok as a law clerk, awaiting July, 2022 Bar Exam results. He can be found on Twitter @Jason_Morrin.