Citizens have right to access most government data

Don Gemberling

This includes public’s right to view and
challenge information in gang databases

by Charles Hallman

The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (Minn. Statues Chapter 13), passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1979, allows citizens access to government data in general, and to public government data in particular.

According to the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), a coalition that supports freedom of information and access to government information, all government data, including data held in paper, electronic and other formats that are collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by any state or local government agency, are accessible by the public unless otherwise classified by law.

“I think communities of color knowing this stuff is very helpful, because it is empowering,” says MNCOGI Board Member Don Gemberling, a longtime advocate of government data accessibility.

The data practices law was the result of “a whole lot of things happening in our society” in the 1970s, recalls Gemberling. “The objective of the legislation is to somehow do a better job of balancing the relationship between the government and the people on whom the government collects and maintain information.

“There actually are two laws, a federal law and a state law,” that give public access to information: the Freedom of Information Act and the Minnesota Data Practices Act, continues Gemberling. “The most important things to know is that most information that the government [has] is public, and you have the right to see it for free. You have the right to get copies of it for a reasonable cost.

You can look at it for nothing. If the government says you can’t have it, they have to tell you what state statute specifically makes the data not available to you.”

Virtually all government data gathered by state agencies as defined by the state law is accessible to the public, Gemberling believes.

“If they are parents, [they can] go look at their kids’ school files,” he notes. “When the government asks you information that is not public, such as data being asked about school kids…the government has to tell you why they are collecting the information, how they are going to use it, whether or not you legally have to provide it, and who else is going to get it once you give it to them.

“People who work for the government can look at their personnel files and see what their supervisors are really saying about them. Medical information is available to you — you can see anything in your medical records. If you are on welfare, all that [information] is available.

“If the government says you are abusing your kids, you get access to the information from which they are making that conclusion,” he points out.

“The statute gives you the right to challenge [the data] if it is not accurate or not complete.”

Gemberling says that any individual can write to the particular state agency to challenge any inaccurate information. “If they refuse to change it, you can appeal that to the Commissioner of [the Minnesota Department of] Administration. That’s a no-fee thing. You can’t challenge it just because you don’t like the fact that they got it. But if it’s wrong, you can challenge it.”

Also, neighborhood crime statistics and arrest records “are all public” and subject under the state data access law, says Gemberling, adding as an example the gang lists local and federal law enforcement currently have. “It would be helpful to know whether or not someone is in that kind of database,” he points out. “Then you would know why you are being treated a certain way by law enforcement.”

MNCOGI is available to answer questions as well (www.mncogi.org), claims Gemberling. “People need to know that they have rights when the government wants to collect information from them or keep information about them,” he says.

“Even if the information is made confidential by law, you have the right to know that the government is maintaining information about you.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.