During a citizen-led meeting to discuss Minneapolis’ $200 million Upper Harbor Terminal project last month, a confrontation between the meeting’s leaders and members of the media made clear: Not everyone knows about Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law.
Under state statute Chapter 13D, everyone has the right to attend most government-sponsored meetings in Minnesota. Additionally, the U.S. Constitution and other statutes guarantee journalists’ right to document and broadcast what they see there — whether via photos, videos or audio recordings.
But given my experience as MinnPost’s local government reporter at the Upper Harbor Terminal meeting — where leaders of the Upper Harbor Collaborative Planning Committee asked me and another journalist to stop doing our jobs — and countless other confrontations between public servants and media in Minnesota, it’s clear that government groups sometimes test the laws on access. If, or when, you feel you need to assert your rights as I did, here’s a guide to help:
First, make sure the law applies to the meeting you want to attend.
Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law, which the state first enacted in 1957, applies to all branches and levels of government, including committees, subcommittees, boards, departments and commissions. (It does not cover the Legislature, however; other state statutes govern its access.)
That means if a local elected body, school board, government agency or group of government-appointed citizens is hosting the meeting, the law likely applies to it.
In addition to in-person meetings, the Open Meeting Law applies to video or phone conference calls that include members of government entities. And email threads between the members that involve discussions or votes can also qualify as “virtual meetings” that violate the transparency requirements, according to the state Department of Administration, which issues opinions on the law that are nonbinding yet carry weight in court proceedings.
“We want government officials doing business … in an open way,” said First Amendment attorney Leita Walker, who has represented local media outlets, including MinnPost. “When people think they’re in closed-door sessions, they say things … in a way that they wouldn’t say publicly.”
But there are a few exceptions to the law. Government-sponsored groups can meet in private if they are going to discuss open investigations by law enforcement; labor contracts; pending litigation; classified or sensitive information (including the identity of some crime victims); and the performance of a government employee, among other scenarios.
But in all of those cases, public bodies must provide a reason for why they must close meetings and publicize a summary of what they will discuss behind closed doors.
The answer to access is not always black or white — but sometimes it is.
Marking a milestone in open access law, the state Court of Appeals ruled in 1988 that the statutes on open meetings did not pertain to a particular advisory committee created by the University of Minnesota Board of Regents to help select a new president. Since the committee met on a temporary basis just for the presidential search and was composed exclusively of faculty and staff, the court ruled that the group could block public access to its meetings, and that ruling remains the governing law for advisory groups in Minnesota with similar formats.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Administration has ruled in separate cases that other advisory boards or committees must follow Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law.
“It is a thorny area of the law,” Walker said.
But in the case of the Upper Harbor Terminal planning committee, specifically, the rules are clear. A set of bylaws govern the group, which the Minneapolis City Council created last spring to increase public input in the massive redevelopment project. And guidelines explicitly state that meetings by the committee are “open to the public, subject to the requirements of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.”
Once you’re at a public meeting, you have certain rights.
While Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law grants everyone access to public meetings, the First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to document and share what they see.
The Constitution establishes “freedom of the press,” meaning journalists have the right to report and circulate information without any censorship from the government. And in the age of social media, when anyone can broadcast information for mass audiences, the civil liberty covers more than just traditional reporters for TV stations or newspapers. If you are a social-justice advocate live tweeting a public meeting, for example, no one can stop you. Any type of government interference would additionally violate the First Amendment’s clause that prohibits the government from “abridging the freedom of speech.”
As for taking images, the First Amendment’s “freedom of expression” protects everyone’s right to document what they see in public spaces — whether via photography, videography or other means — if the documentarians aren’t in authorities’ way.
Also, the state law governing recordings allows anyone to record and share audio of conversations — whether in-person or over the phone — with the consent of at least one member of the conversation. That means the person doing the recording, which could be a reporter, can serve as the consenting party and legally record public meetings without anyone else’s consent.
But here’s where you could cross the line; Minnesota’s law does not guarantee the public the right to speak at all open meetings. Meeting organizers can allow public comments on a case-by-case basis, and if they do, they set their own rules, including the maximum time speakers can testify.
Following the Open Meeting Law means more than simply allowing spectators.
Various state statutes, including the Open Meeting Law, require public entities to publicize their meeting schedules and document what happens when they get together.
That means public bodies must grant everyone access to records, documents, PowerPoints, spreadsheets or other materials the groups use in public meetings, unless the data contains sensitive or classified data. The entities must also document their decisions and votes.
Many local municipalities meet those requirements by posting meeting agendas and minutes online. The City of Minneapolis, for example, uses a software system that shows “marked agendas” — including final decisions by council members, commissioners or appointed citizens — as well as schedules for upcoming meetings that include when the public can testify.
You can challenge violations of Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law.
Note: Government entities can find ways to evade the law legally.
But if you think, whether intentionally or not, a group blocked your access to public discussions, you can sue in district court. With the help of attorneys, you would use the state statutes and case law to explain how, or to what extent, the group disobeyed the transparency requirements. And since many government bodies in Minnesota video-record their meetings, whether they’re open or not, you could use that footage as evidence to make your case.
Then, a court or jury would review your party’s argument. If the court rules in your favor, it may impose fines against the public body.
From Walker’s experience, people who violate Minnesota’s open meeting law generally don’t have bad motives. For example, some groups try to block public access because they want to protect the privacy of candidates for a job. “They come from a good place,” she said. “[There’s] a lack of understanding.”