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Freedom of Information Day

Adam Ripple

While it is probably overshadowed by the day it precedes, March 16th is “Freedom of Information Day” in honor of the birthday of James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” who championed government openness in the establishment of the United States of America.

Minnesota has an entire chapter of state law entitled the “Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.” While the title is less than eloquent, the Act was the Nation’s first such law and serves the legacy of James Madison well. The law allows anyone—resident, non-resident, individual, or entity—to request information from any state or local government in Minnesota. The statute also establishes a presumption in favor of making government data public and accessible.

If you want information from any state or local government in Minnesota, here is what you are entitled to:

  1. You do not have to explain why you want the information, although you may have to complete a written request form.
  1. If you are the subject of the data you are seeking, you have additional rights:
    1. Your request must be responded to in 10 business days or less;
    2. You cannot be charged for searching for data; and
    3. You have access to certain private data about yourself that is otherwise inaccessible to the general public (you may be asked to provide identification).
  1. You are entitled to view the data free of charge. If you want copies there are limits on what you may be charged:
    1. For 100 or fewer pages, the limit is 25¢ per page; and
    2. Actual costs may be charged for more than 100 pages or for non-paper forms of data such as DVDs.

To make a request you need to contact the “responsible authority.” For state agencies, this is typically the commissioner; for counties it is often the administrator or the elected department head (sheriff, county attorney, or auditor); in cities it is usually the clerk or administrator; and the superintendent is often the responsible authority for school districts.

Importantly, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act also protects sensitive private information that the government maintains, such as medical information. The law imposes obligations on government to tell you when it is collecting information and how that information may be used. This warning is referred to as a Tennessen Warning (named after the State Senator that drafted the Act). A Tennessen Warning must include the following:

  1. Why government is collecting the data;
  2. How government will use the data;
  3. Whether you are legally required to provide the data;
  4. The consequences if you provide the data;
  5. The consequences if you do not provide the data; and
  6. The identities of people or entities that will have access to the data.

In addition to the Tennessen Warning, the statute requires the government to obtain your informed written consent before it discloses your private data. The law also requires the government to notify you in writing when there is a security breach of your data. This area of the law has made headlines in recent years due to numerous breaches of driver’s license databases maintained by the State of Minnesota.

A little known government office, the Information Policy Analysis Division of the Minnesota Department of Administration, is charged with providing assistance and advice to citizens and government with respect to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The Division maintains numerous resources and issues advisory opinions to the public and units of government. Their website is http://www.ipad.state.mn.us/index.html.

The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act is 176 pages long, and its scope is far beyond this short article. The actual text of the law can be viewed on the Minnesota Revisor’s website at: https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=13&view=chapter. Give us a call and any of the government attorneys at Rinke Noonan would be happy to ‘nerd-out’ on the MGDPA with you.

© 2017 Rinke Noonan