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Our view: North Dakotans shouldn’t have to provide personal info when requesting documents they already own

Public entities simply must provide the documents that are requested, without question and without bias. They may have to grit their teeth every now and then, but this is how transparency works.

Herald pull quote, 1/14/23
Herald graphic
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When any person walks into a public office – some city hall or school headquarters, for instance – they are entitled to see any public record they wish. That person doesn’t have to explain, give their name or why they have an interest in that public record.

They don’t even have to be from that town.

That is not only the law, it’s just common sense. State law even spells it out, saying a public entity or its representatives “may not ask for the motive or reason for requesting the records or for the identity of the person requesting records.”

Not everybody sees it that way. A proposal in the North Dakota Legislature seeks to change the law so that a person requesting a public record must give their name and provide personal contact information.” It’s House Bill 1198 , introduced by Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson.

Our advice to lawmakers: Don’t do this. Just wad it up and toss it.

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Here’s why: The more roadblocks that are put on public records, the less they actually become “open” – at least in the truest sense.

Already, there are fees attached to open records, and sometimes those fees can add up. A person without the money therefore cannot easily access a large number of documents. We understand why there are fees attached – it’s because public employees must process the requests – but when a bill comes in at $100 or more, it certainly can be a deterrent.

At times, newspapers in the Forum Communications Co. chain have paid thousands of dollars to access documents. We know of one case where $7,000 was spent.

But also, some requesters might be hesitant to attach their name to a request because it could raise flags that ultimately could sway them from seeking the records.

What if a person wants documents related to a small-town mayor or sheriff? That could spark a confrontation, and it might sway the requester from going through the trouble.

These things happen. We know of a case in South Dakota, in the early 2000s, when a newspaper intern was sent to a local City Hall to request information about the chief of police. That intern was then detained in a separate room and questioned.

Everyone is a member of the public and we all own these records. So why should it matter who is making the request for public documents?

And why should anyone have to provide personal information to know what their government is up to?

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They shouldn’t have to.

Public entities simply must provide the documents that are requested, without question and without bias. They may have to grit their teeth every now and then, but this is how transparency works.

For the sake of openness in North Dakota, we hope HB 1198 dies a quick death.

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