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Governor claims new restriction on ‘Montanans’ Right to Know’

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News from Constance Van Kley, Upper Seven Law

HELENA — In the 2021 legislative session, Governor Greg Gianforte implemented a new method of tracking legislation — the “Agency Bill Monitoring Form.” Shortly after the session ended, Montana citizen Jayson O’Neill submitted an information request under Montana’s constitutional Right to Know, asking the Governor to provide the forms and related communications. The Governor refused, telling Mr. O’Neill that he would provide the documents only if a court ordered him to do so.    

Mr. O’Neill filed suit in September 2021, seeking release of the forms. On April 20, he filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to order the Governor to release the requested materials.

Montana’s constitutional Right to Know gives citizens the right to access documents that public bodies use and produce in their decision-making process. No other state has a constitutional provision quite like it — Montanans’ fundamental right to observe and understand government processes is without equal in the 50 states. The Right to Know is nonpartisan and works to ensure every citizen has access to their government and its workings. Officeholders historically have taken the provision seriously, providing requested information without protest. Since Governor Gianforte took office, however, government-assessed fees for standard requests have skyrocketed, and citizens are experiencing more resistance than under previous administrations — with a chilling effect on transparency.

In response to Mr. O’Neill’s request, the Governor did not assess an extraordinarily high fee or delay responding — two practices commonly reported by those seeking information from the current Administration. Instead, he told Mr. O’Neill that he was not required to respond at all, relying on a case decided by the Washington Supreme Court. But Washington has no constitutional Right to Know, and the Governor is effectively asking a judge to craft a new limitation on Montanans’ rights.  

“The Governor’s attempt to claim a new restriction and deny public records should concern all Montanans,” said Constance Van Kley, Litigation Director for Upper Seven Law. “In Montana, the people are the source of all power, and our Right to Know plays a vital role in ensuring that no one holds more power than the public.”

The plaintiff is represented by Constance Van Kley and Rylee Sommers-Flanagan of Upper Seven Law, and Raph Graybill of Graybill Law Firm. 


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