Minnesota Department of Administration Advisory Opinion 01-014

This is an opinion of the Commissioner of Administration issued pursuant to section 13.072 of Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13 - the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. It is based on the facts and information available to the Commissioner as described below.


Facts and Procedural History:

For purposes of simplification, the information presented by the person who requested this opinion and the response from the government entity with which the person disagrees are presented in summary form. Copies of the complete submissions are on file at the offices of IPA and, except for any data classified as not public, are available for public access.

On November 17, 2000, the Commissioner received a letter dated November 16, 2000, from X. In his/her letter, X requested that the Commissioner issue an opinion regarding a possible violation of X's rights under Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13, by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI).

IPA, on behalf of the Commissioner, wrote to Gretchen Maglich, Commissioner of DLI, in response to X's request. The purposes of this letter, dated November 28, 2000, were to inform her of X's request and to ask her to provide information or support for the Department's position. On December 18, 2000, IPA received comments, dated December 15, 2000, from Nancy Leppink, Director of Legal Services for DLI.

A summary of the facts as X presented them is as follows. X wrote that since August 1, 2000, s/he has requested public and private data from DLI. X added that since August 1, 2000, s/he has repeatedly been required to identify him/herself, state reasons for, and justify his/her request(s) for public data. X named several DLI employees who have "committed these violations." X also stated that Commissioner Maglich has required X to put all requests in writing.

In addition, X described an occasion in which s/he went to DLI to request data. On November 7, 2000, the front desk employee advised X that the requested data were located on another floor and that X would have to sign his/her name on a clipboard "in order to go into the building to obtain this public data." X stated that s/he declined, citing Minnesota Statutes, section 13.05, subdivision 12.


Issue:

In X's request for an opinion, s/he asked the Commissioner to address the following issue:

Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, section 13.05, subdivision 12, is it appropriate for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry to ask a data requestor to identify him/herself and to justify the request?


Discussion:

The 2000 Minnesota Legislature enacted Minnesota Statutes, section 13.05, subdivision 12. It went into effect on August 1, 2000, and provides:

Unless specifically authorized by statute, government entities may not require persons to identify themselves, state a reason for, or justify a request to gain access to public government data. A person may be asked to provide certain identifying or clarifying information for the sole purpose of facilitating access to the data.

In her comments to the Commissioner, Ms. Leppink first argued that, in this case, the Commissioner does not have authority to issue an opinion. The Commissioner respectfully disagrees. Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, section 13.072, he may issue an opinion "upon request of any person who disagrees with a determination regarding data practices made by [a government entity]" regarding that individual's "rights as a subject of government data or right to have access to government data." Here, X alleges DLI determined that s/he cannot gain access to data without providing identifying information. Thus, alleges X, DLI violated his/her rights pursuant to section 13.05, subdivision 12.

Ms. Leppink did not directly address any situations in which X requested data but generally discussed the language in section 13.05, subdivision 12, noting that it applies only to requests for public data. She concluded:

It is appropriate and in some instance required for a government entity to ask for identifying and clarifying information from a person who is requesting access to other than public government data. In addition, it is appropriate for a government entity to ask for identifying and clarifying information from a person who is requesting access to public government data if the information is being requested to facilitate access to data.

The Commissioner offers the following comments. Based on Ms. Leppink's comments, the Commissioner assumes DLI has asked X for identifying information prior to acting on his/her requests (Ms. Leppink did not deny that this has occurred). However, because Ms. Leppink did not demonstrate why DLI needs such information to "facilitate access to data," the Commissioner is left to conclude that DLI has no basis upon which to ask for the data.

Ms. Leppink also did not comment on X's allegation that DLI requires X to put all data requests in writing. In the past, the Commissioner has opined that government entities, as part of the policies and procedures they establish to ensure appropriate access to government data, may require the data requestor to put the request in writing. The new provisions of section 13.05, subdivision 12, will have some effect on such policies. Clearly, government entities now may not require identification from public data requestors. However, it is reasonable for a government entity, as part of its data access policies and procedures, to require a written description of the data sought, without requiring the requestor to include her/his identification, reasons or justification. Requiring a written description of the data does not offend the statute, but can ensure clarification that promotes compliance with a request for public government data.


Opinion:

Based on the facts and information provided, my opinion on the issue that X raised is as follows:

Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, section 13.05, subdivision 12, when an individual requests access to public data, it is not appropriate for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) to ask a data requestor to identify him/herself and to justify the request.

Signed:

David F. Fisher
Commissioner

Dated: January 16, 2001