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The Public Has a Right to See Government Records

Recently, members of the public have filed numerous public records requests with Minnesota school districts, seeking information about how the districts deal with and communicate about controversial topics, including critical race theory, equity, and social justice. They’ve also questioned how the districts communicate with outside entities, including unions, about these topics.

This isn’t unique to Minnesota—increasingly, parents across the country want to know what their kids are being taught in school, how their tax dollars are being spent, and who is influencing classroom curriculum. However, in Minnesota, the ability to file public records requests is being attacked.

Although the recent requests comply with the state’s freedom of information (FOI) law, local publications have criticized the requesters, saying that the law is meant to “shed light” on government activity, while these requests are simply “creating havoc” due to their disagreement with the requesters’ agenda, in addition to the length and number of requests, and the cost of fulfilling them.

However, the state law makes no distinction between requests that cause “havoc” versus those that “shed light,” nor does it use the political ideology of requesters to draw such a distinction. Some, frustrated with how the law works, have even suggested changing it to shift the financial burden of requesting public information onto requesters.

Despite opinions to the contrary, there’s nothing wrong with this type of record request—in fact, FOI laws are made for the “politically motivated” requester. New York’s freedom of information law (FOIL), for example, ensures that requesters don’t have to say why they’re requesting a record, and that the government can’t deny a request just because it disagrees with a requester’s purpose. In other words, someone’s political, philosophical, or policy motivation doesn’t matter—he or she is still just as entitled to the information as someone with no political axe to grind.

When the government is suspected of doing something that, as a matter of policy, the public doesn’t agree with—for instance, school officials coordinating with teachers unions about critical race theory—they’re allowed to hold it accountable.

Even public employees can make use of FOI laws. Filing a public records request can be a good solution if someone suspects that their union is not fairly representing them or may be engaging in political activity that they don’t agree with. This is yet another reason why FOI laws are so vital—people need to know how their union dues may end up influencing government affairs.

FOI laws inform the public of what government is up to—including public schools—and this allows people to prevent and correct overreach and abuse. This “checking in” on government is especially important when the government doesn’t want to release certain records, and even more so when people characterize certain requests as out-of-bounds for being “politically motivated.”

Granted, the government isn’t always wrong to withhold information—for example, it would be right to deny a public records request which seeks public employees’ social security numbers, which are private information that FOI laws protect. When governments use these recognized exemptions to FOI laws properly, the laws work as written. However, in denying requests, governments often give explanations that seem more like excuses than legitimate reasons—they say that the requests cost too much or take up too much time. The public shouldn’t put up with such diversions, nor should they apologize for using FOI laws for their intended purpose: to hold government accountable to the people.

If you want to file a public records request for your union contract or other public information, Americans for Fair Treatment may be able to help. Please contact us at info@afft.org.

Patrick Moran

Patrick J. Moran is a Staff Attorney at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment, Patrick served as an attorney for the USDA. Before that, he was a legal associate at the Cato Institute, where he focused on First Amendment issues, including religious liberty and free speech. Patrick received his law degree from the University of Florida, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from University at Albany, SUNY. As a native New Yorker, he works to ensure that public-sector employees in his home state know their constitutional rights and receive fair treatment under the law. Patrick lives in Maryland with his wife.