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In Response: Data request seeks to create transparency not ‘havoc’

  • By James V. F. Dickey My View

James V.F. Dickey’s My View, was in response to the Mankato Freepress’s Our View: Creating havoc not the purpose of open records, published Nov. 22nd 2021.

This Letter to the Editor was originally published by the Mankato Freepress and can be found HERE.

By James V.F. Dickey

I write in response to your Nov. 22 editorial entitled, “Our View: Creating havoc not the purpose of open records.” The editorial is misinformed and attacks an enemy that simply does not exist. As the attorney for the Owatonna group misrepresented by the article, I feel compelled to set the record straight.

First, I agree with the basic, uncontroversial premise that creating havoc is not the purpose of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The Minnesota Legislature made a decision in the 1970s to ensure that the people have access to documents which show what their government is doing. The courts have clearly stated that there is no “burdensomeness” exception to this law, despite the best efforts of politicians (including anti-transparency school boards) to create one.

To put it bluntly, there is zero evidence to support the editorial board’s demeaning claim that our clients’ data request to Owatonna schools was designed to create havoc. It is not.

As our clients stated in a clear response to an Owatonna newspaper’s inquiry, they are simply seeking to find out what the school is actually teaching students, and whether that instruction involves problematic elements of Critical Race Theory and its ideological counterparts. If Owatonna were truly not teaching CRT, and if there was no real concern that teachers within the district are doing so, the data request would have yielded few, if any, results.

That is what one might expect, given the tired and misleading mantra repeated by school boards and superintendents across Minnesota: that CRT is not being taught. Instead, our request yielded a massive trove of documents mentioning our keywords which our clients have taken time from their busy lives to sort through.

The editorial board’s uninformed piece also appears totally unaware that, after the initial request was made, I personally, on behalf of our clients, narrowed the request to make it less burdensome, despite no obligation to do so. Based on the number of hits per term, we recognized that some terms were bringing in likely unnecessary data, and we reduced the request to 19 keyword terms.

We worked with the district to make it more manageable for them and better for us. It is telling that the district failed to inform the editorial board of that important fact.

Finally, it is inappropriate to lump our request in with the recent, very lengthy request to Rochester made by another firm. The editorial board touts its own requests as the model, citing their one or two pages per request. Ours was four pages, only two of which contain our keywords, and the remainder of which is standard recitations of legal requirements under the data practices act.

Again, we make no comment on the longer Rochester data request. But the enemy here is not parents and taxpayers who want to know what is being taught to the youth in their school district. This “us versus them” mentality is the enemy — and it is created by anti-transparency politicians and a failure to investigate and uncover what is really going on.

James V. F. Dickey is senior trial counsel for Upper Midwest Law Center.