ROCHESTER, Minn. — Our nation's Founding Fathers saw press freedom as a crucial method of holding public officials accountable for their actions.
But a lot of people might not realize that the First Amendment didn't go far enough in its guarantee of press freedoms and Americans' right to know what their government is doing. It wasn't until 1967, with the passage of the federal Freedom of Information Act, that the veil of secrecy was fully pulled back.
The act ensures that — with certain exceptions — media outlets, businesses and even private citizens have access to the documents, letters, meeting minutes and other correspondence produced by government agencies and elected officials. The FOIA, supplemented in Minnesota by the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, is one of the most important safeguards we have to ensure transparency at all levels of government, and it is one of the most important tools in a journalist's toolbox.
Unfortunately, the FOIA is becoming a battleground — and Rochester might be the latest site of the growing conflict.
A Minneapolis law firm, acting on behalf of a Rochester-based group called Equality in Education, has submitted a data request to Rochester Public Schools. The request itself is 41 pages long, and it seeks any and all school district documents, emails, text messages and even social media posts by district employees that might be construed as relating to discussions of or the teaching of equity, social justice and critical race theory.
This isn't a subtle request. Critical race theory became a hot-button topic in the public comment portion of Rochester School Board meetings this year, and it's safe to say that the as-yet-unknown people behind Equality in Education aren't fans of CRT. Simply put, we believe this data request is a fishing expedition that hopes to find evidence that Rochester Public Schools, despite its protestations to the contrary, has allowed critical race theory to seep into its classrooms.
Fair enough. Parents have a right to know how schools develop their curricula, and they also have a right to raise objections and to question what their children are being taught. While people can disagree about whether critical race theory has a place in public K-12 education, they absolutely have the right to know if it is being taught there.
The problem, however, is with the size and scope of this request, which demands a mountain of information from every school in the district. To comply, the school district would have to divert hundreds, perhaps thousands of employee hours and compile thousands of pages of documents from a variety of sources dating back two years.
This is part of a trend.
A Nov. 5, 2018, New York Times published article — “Industries Turn Freedom of Information Requests on Their Critics” — explains that, in the past decade, FOIA requests have increased exponentially both in number and size. And there is a danger that such requests could ultimately backfire.
Margaret Kwoka, a University of Denver professor who specializes in government transparency litigation, said there is “a real danger that we'll hit a tipping point, where the cost and burden of open records laws will overcome the benefits and we'll have a retrenchment of transparency rights. This kind of abuse fuels the political will to do that.”
Put more simply, when too many school districts, city governments and state agencies are buried under and financially burdened by massive data requests, the state and/or federal government might feel compelled to change the rules. Those changes would almost certainly mean less transparency and less accountability at every level of government.
As journalists, that's the last thing we want to happen, so we hope that cooler heads can prevail.
At the local level, we'd like to see the leaders of Equality in Education meet with school board members, with the goal of narrowing the information request. Perhaps data from one high school, one middle school and one elementary school would suffice — with Equality in Education choosing the schools. That would be a fair compromise, especially if the purpose of the data request truly is to find out what's being taught in Rochester's schools.
If Equality in Education has other motives — well, we wish them good luck as they peruse tens of thousands of pages of documents in their search for a third-grade teacher's text message that uses the words “race” and “critical” in the same sentence.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Rochester Post Bulletin.