North Dakota bill would require name, address for open records requests
One lawmaker claims the anonymous aspect of open records law is being abused, but a sunshine law advocate said the bill could lead to abuse by government agencies.
BISMARCK — A North Dakota bill would require residents who want to request public documents to give their name, address and contact information to government agencies if they want the records.
Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, introduced House Bill 1198 on Monday, Jan. 9. If passed, government entities could ignore records requests if a person who asks for documents doesn’t provide a valid name, address or contact information.
“If you can do things anonymously, it makes me wonder why,” Lefor said. “Why wouldn’t you declare what your name and address and so forth is?”
With some exceptions, government records in North Dakota are public, meaning anyone can view or request copies of those documents. North Dakota law prohibits a public entity from asking for a person’s identification.
Government agencies also cannot ask why a record is being requested, and the request doesn’t have to be put in writing or made in person.
Forcing people to attach a name to a public records request destroys the basic purposes of open records laws in North Dakota, said Jack McDonald, an attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association and advocate for state sunshine laws. The law protects a citizen’s right to get a public record and use it however they want, he said.
This bill could prompt government officials to ask people what they plan to do with records they request, McDonald said. That could hinder investigative journalism and whistleblower laws if a government agency decides to take action to stifle efforts to obtain records, he claimed.
“It really will destroy the open records law,” McDonald said, adding a public record belongs to the public. “Why do you need a name?”
Lefor said the public has a right to access public records, but he feels that right has been abused when people have done it anonymously. Submitting multiple records requests with no names creates a lot of work for government agencies.
“I know of one university that got 35 anonymous requests, and it took a tremendous amount of time and energy to process that information,” he said.
People who ask for federal documents through a Freedom of Information Act request must submit their names, addresses and contact information, Lefor noted. He said he feels North Dakota law should line up with that.
“We’re not asking a lot,” he said, adding that requiring identifying information would make the processing of open records requests more efficient.
McDonald questioned whether there is evidence the anonymous clause of North Dakota’s open records law has been abused. He said he fears a public employee could face disciplinary action if a government agency finds out a worker requested information.
In Cass County, volunteer Deputy Ben Longlet made several open records requests to the Sheriff's Office as Code4 Media. He sent several public documents in October to media that revealed a deputy used his government-issued phone to send nude images of himself, including one that went to a co-worker.
The Sheriff's Office discovered Longlet was behind Code4 and placed him on administrative leave while it investigated his actions for policy violations. Longlet has asserted his right to remain anonymous under state open records laws was violated.
North Dakota has laws to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.