If Montclair has your email, expect a message from an anti-hate group
If you've ever given Montclair Township your email address for the Swift 911 service — used for notices about street closures, changes to recycling schedules and other alerts about township incidents and services — it's now in the hands of an anti-hate nonprofit.
Ben Shore, co-founder and director of Rise Against Hate, said residents on the mailing list should expect a single message from his group later this year, probably near the end of the summer. It'll include a report detailing what he says are concerning patterns in police practices — for instance, saying Black people in Montclair were more likely to wind up the subjects of police force than white people from 2012 through 2016.
The report has not yet been published or seen by Montclair Local, though Shore provided some of the statistics it will include earlier this year.
The email will include an unsubscribe link, Shore said, but Montclair residents shouldn't expect to find Rise Against Hate in their inboxes again unless they sign up for its newsletters. Residents of several other towns throughout New Jersey will get similar reports, detailing the group's findings about their communities.
"We pooled the towns based on how concerning we found their police practices to be," Shore said.
Rise Against Hate obtained Montclair's mailing list by first submitting a public records request last year, then suing in December when the township refused to turn the addresses over. The two sides reached a settlement in February, with Montclair agreeing both to turn over the list and pay $3,500 for the group's attorney's fees. Montclair’s own legal work was handled in-house by the township attorney’s office, Township Communications Director Katya Wowk said.
It's one of dozens of legal disputes Rise Against Hate has fought against New Jersey municipalities over the last few months, some still ongoing, seeking the mailing lists or police records to be used for its research.
Montclair officials hadn't made any public statement acknowledging they'd turned over the list when they settled in February. Katya acknowledged that month a settlement had been reached, but didn't disclose any terms, saying that until the parties satisfied their obligations, it wasn't yet final. She didn't answer multiple emails sent in subsequent weeks seeking information on the terms. Shore also hadn't returned messages in that time, though he took multiple calls from Montclair Local over the last few days.
Montclair Local ultimately received a copy of the settlement agreement the afternoon of April 14 through its own public records request — a few weeks after the time normally allotted to answer such a request, because the township asked for an extension.
Mayor Sean Spiller hasn't yet answered a voicemail from Montclair Local that day asking for comment on the settlement (township offices were closed the following day for Good Friday). But he said in January that while the township respects groups working to advance justice, residents provide their email addresses specifically to get municipal news alerts — and don’t expect communication from other groups.
It's not Montclair's first time taking on — and losing — a fight to protect its mailing list. In 2020, the Montclair Property Owners Association successfully sued the township when it declined to turn over its list of emails and phone numbers, which the group wanted to solicit signatures for a petition seeking a referendum on a rent control ordinance (part of a two-year dispute that recently culminated with a deal on a replacement ordinance, negotiated by landlords and tenant advocates ). The township, after being ordered to hand over the email list to the association, sent out its own message blast saying its “intense efforts to protect you from a blatant invasion of your privacy” had been rejected and that “you can be sure that we are all outraged by the court’s decision.”
Spiller noted in January that in the Montclair Property Owners Association case, the group was allowed the list only for a limited time and purpose, and then required to delete it.
The Montclair settlement is also far from Rise Against Hate's only victory against a municipality reluctant to hand over its list. Shore told Montclair Local in January that his group had requested such lists from communities all over New Jersey, and about 80% provided them without a fight.
Rise Against Hate filed lawsuits against other communities. Judges ordered Cherry Hill, West Deptford and Bridgewater to release their mailing lists, though those rulings have been stayed pending appeal. A judge in January also ordered Lodi and Allendale to turn over their lists. In several other municipalities, the cases have been settled and withdrawn; Shore said that's because local governments have been providing the addresses as originally requested.
"We haven't lost yet," he said.
A case in Margate was expected to be heard later this month, though communications company Onsolve, also a defendant in that case, asked for an adjournment to a later date.
In the cases decided so far, courts have determined that email addresses collected by a municipality are public records, and that residents who gave towns their emails either had no "colorable" claim to privacy, or reasoned that people routinely give out their email addresses to businesses and organizations without much regard to whether they'll ultimately be kept confidential.
The courts have also noted Rise Against Hate didn't ask for any other identifying information with the email addresses. In Montclair, the township agreed to hand over a list of addresses in randomized order, but no further information such as names or physical addresses for the recipients.
The group also recently sued several municipalities after they rejected public records requests seeking forms for summonses and arrest warrants, known as CDR-1s and CDR-2s. A judge sided with Woodbridge, which argued that Rise Against Hate had asked in its request for "CDR-1 and CDR-2 reports" — not the forms themselves, which the police department would have and be obligated to provide, but instead compilations of information about the forms that only the judiciary could provide using its software and databases. Some cases in other towns have hearings coming up in the next few weeks, though Shore said many communities provided the information once Rise Against Hate made new public records requests, updating its wording.
Shore told Montclair Local he thinks many towns have fought his group simply because they could — using taxpayer funds to support legal costs, even if they expected to lose.
"The unfortunate thing is that at the end of the day, when the townships fight, they're not necessarily using their money but the taxpayers' money," he said. "But ultimately, we've had multiple judges who've straight-up said, 'I'm not going to rule in your favor. You need to reach a settlement."