In June 2015, I filed suit against the City of Bloomington, Minnesota, seeking to compel compliance with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act—Minnesota’s freedom of information law—pertaining to a request for access to data surrounding the controversial law enforcement preparation and response to the December 2014 ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest at the Mall of America.
The data I was able to see was integral to several news stories, including the bombshell that private security at the Mall of America were impersonating protesters online to gather intelligence, which they then handed off to prosectors.
My civil action to compel compliance alleged that the City delayed compliance, failed to preserve data, concealed data from me, altered government emails, denied access to metadata, failed to provide proper certification of its denial of access to data, and that the City attempted to look up my voter registration data to tailor its response to my request.
The City’s strategy shifted throughout litigation. First, the City claimed my request constituted harassment—it wasn’t, it’s everyone’s right to access government data. Next, the City claimed that I was an “agent for Black Lives Matter”—I wasn’t, and it has no legal relevance. Then the City claimed I was attempting to circumvent disclosure in criminal cases—criminal procedure doesn’t apply to freedom of information cases, I wasn’t a criminal defendant, and there’s already case law establishing the right to access data stands on its own.
The City argued that metadata is not public under the law, relying on an Arizona ruling that obviously doesn’t apply to Minnesota law in a Minnesota case. Metadata was important; I wouldn’t have found out about Mall of America security impersonating protesters online if I wasn’t able to see the ‘Author’ field in a Word document—but the City insisted I couldn’t do the same for other data.
In the City’s court pleadings, they initially denied manipulating emails, only eventually admitting to it as discovery approached. The City hired a forensic expert to analyze the City’s computer I used to inspect data, who stated that I never attempted to open certain files because a “welcome” box popped up in Windows Media Player, signaling to him it had never been opened before. He further claimed that I was able to see metadata.
Then discovery came, revealing that possibly as many as 82 other people used the computer after me—something the forensic analyst conveniently neglected to tell the Court. Discovery further revealed the City didn’t promptly implement a litigation hold, and that data had been deleted. In the City’s responses to my requests for admission, they admitted that I in fact did attempt to open those files; that I even demonstrated them not opening to a City staffer. The City further admitted that—contrary to their forensics analyst—I was not able to see all metadata.
Perhaps most appalling, the City argued that I had “abandoned” my data request between the time they put their denial in writing and the time I retained counsel, even though I put my disagreement in writing and informed them that I was searching for counsel. For the record, the statute of limitations on MGDPA actions is six years in civil court, or two years in an administrative action.
The City muddied the water enough that the judge felt there were factual issues needing resolution before the legal issues could be analyzed, so both my request for an order to compel compliance, and the City’s request for dismissal, were denied. We were sent away to do discovery. We did, and the City produced approximately 198 gigabytes of data on a hard drive.