Port: Bill would require personal details about those requesting public records

If a record is public, does it really matter which member of the public is requesting access to it?

North Dakota Capitol
North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck.
Forum News Service file photo

MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota has excellent statutes protecting the public's access to public records.

The law begins with a presumption that every record is open to public inspection unless there is a specific statute excluding it. If a government entity denies you access to a record, it must cite the statute allowing it to do so. If they aren't following the law correctly, citizens can file a complaint with the Attorney General's Office and ask for a review. You can also take the matter to the courts.

Reps. Mike Lefor and Vicky Steiner, R-District 37, watched the votes come in on the House floor Monday. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press
Reps. Mike Lefor, who is sponsoring a bill requiring that requestors of public records identify themselves, watches votes come in on the House floor.
Ellie Potter/Forum News Service

The other presumption in the law is that the public doesn't need a reason to access public records. There is no requirement justifying or explaining why you want access to the records, nor do you have to provide details about yourself. The opposite is true. The law specifically prohibits our state government from asking you about your motivations or your identity.

Section 44-04-18 of the North Dakota Century Code reads, in part: "A public entity may require written clarification of the request to determine what records are being requested, but may not ask for the motive or reason for requesting the records or for the identity of the person requesting public records."

That our state records are public is all the justification any citizen needs to access them.


Unfortunately, this openness is sometimes abused. A recent example comes from earlier this year when the disciples of certain conspiracy-mongering grifters inundated state election officials with records requests . The law requires that each of these requests be taken seriously by public officials, no matter how inane, which results in a lot of time and energy spent satisfying them.

This is a bad thing. Keeping access to public records open is a constant struggle. As I noted back in September, many in government view this level of access to state records as folly. A nuisance. Even a menace. They are on the prowl for justifications to close it down.

Which brings us to the current legislative session. House Bill 1198 , introduced by Rep. Mike Lefor, a Dickinson Republican and the House Majority Leader, would require that those making open records requests identify themselves and provide personal contact information.

Here are the changes Lefor's bill would make in situ:

House Bill 1198
Some of the modifications House Bill 1198, introduced by Republican House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, would make to North Dakota's open records laws.

I'll not impugn Rep. Lefor's motivations for this bill, because they're understandable. It is painful to watch unserious cranks waste the time and resources of our public officials with frivolous requests. It is rank abuse of an important tool for accountability and transparency.

A Wall Street Journal poll shows declining support for American values like patriotism and community. Should anyone be surprised?
"Instead of legislation backed by a celebrity criminal defendant, North Dakota's lawmakers should look at putting more funding into public defenders."
State lawmakers, who are also considering doling out $24 million in private school tuition subsidies, just killed a $6 million appropriation for school lunches.

That said, this is a dangerous road to walk.

There are valid reasons to make anonymous requests for records. Remember that open records requests are themselves open records. Under this proposed law, someone trying to research a hot-button political issue, such as abortion, could see their home addresses, phone numbers, and other details get shared with the opposition.

Government whistleblowers are another consideration. I've written dozens of stories over the years based on records collected by an insider who made anonymous open records requests.


But the most compelling reason? The state doesn't really have a need for this information. If a record is public, does it really matter which member of the public is requesting access to it?

We can't start judging requests for public information on their merits. That can be a subjective thing. I am a prolific requester of public records, and I can tell you that very often, some political leaders and public servants in this state have thought I was wasting everyone's time with some quixotic tilt at a windmill. Maybe sometimes they were even right, but it shouldn't matter. The public's access to the public's records shouldn't hinge on some subjective opinion about the motivations of those requesting the records.

Sometimes we may not like the reason why a person, or group of people, are requesting records, and sometimes we may think they're wasting time and money, and those are things we'll just have to accept.

Chalk it up to the cost of doing business as an open and accountable state government.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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