State laws make public info accessible

Shannon Fiecke

When he first asked for University fire code violation records, senior Patrick Armitage encountered resistance similar to what many people face when requesting public information.

“I went in there not as confident and informed about my rights to public data as I should have,” he said.

Like Armitage, most people – and many journalists – do not know their rights to public records, public information experts say.

Property values, food code violations, divorce records, voter registration or other quasi-personal information about Minnesotans is available to the public.

It can be a bit overwhelming.

“You could go forever looking up stuff,” Armitage said.

The Minnesota Data Practices Act and the federal Freedom of Information Act make most government-held information public.

Often, the key to getting the public officials to turn over data is to cite the specific provision of the law, media attorney Paul Hannah said.

“In reality, most public officials are more than willing to follow the law if they know what it is,” said Hannah, who represents the St. Paul Pioneer Press and KSTP-TV.

Hannah said he gets about one call per week from those having trouble getting what they want.

Retrieving police records is the most common difficulty, but Hannah said problems exist from state to local agencies.

Technology is increasing the scope of information in demand, Hannah said.

Officials might not hesitate to give one record but are more reluctant to release a database of records, Hannah said.

Everyone should learn how to request public information, Rebecca Daugherty, a director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said.

“An important part of citizenship is looking at your government,” she said.

Americans have nearly unparalleled rights to information, said John Ullmann, a University professor and World Press Institute director.

The pendulum swings against openness in the United States, Ullmann said.

Although Sept. 11, 2001, reaction focused attention on public records, Ullmann said there has been a constant battle against the erosion of public access since the Freedom of Information Act took effect in 1967.

“Many custodians of public records still believe the records belong to them,” he said. “You must work hard at getting them loose.”

Every state has its own open records and meeting laws, Daugherty said.

Unlike Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas, Minnesota has an impartial office to deal with public access, said Don Gemberling, Office of Information Policy director in the state’s Department of Administration.

“It’s important for (students) to understand that if they’re not from Minnesota, they’ll encounter different realities in their own state,” he said.

The office explains Minnesotans’ rights under the Data Practices Act.

To learn more about the act and read advisory opinions on the law, people can visit the office’s Web site.