Minnesota Reporter Fights for Records About Muslim Airport Tour

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A Minnesota attorney and journalist claims in court that the Department of Homeland Security has refused to hand over public records about a tour that hosted imams and Muslim community leaders at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.

Scott W. Johnson sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, its Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Minneapolis federal court on Monday, alleging a violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

Johnson, a Minnesota resident, attorney and journalist, says he has written on public policy issues for nearly 25 years, ranging from campaign-finance reform to race in the criminal justice system.

According to the complaint, Johnson has been published in the magazines National Review and the Weekly Standard, and newspapers the New York Times, New York Post, Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Johnson claims Homeland Security, CRCL and CBP conducted a tour of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for local imams and Muslim community leaders in February 2016.

A month later, the Star Tribune reported that a member of the defense team for Mohamed Abdihamid Farah was invited to the tour but was then uninvited.

Farah is one of several men convicted of plotting to join the Islamic State terrorist group and commit murder abroad. He was sentenced in November to 30 years in prison.

On April 3, 2016, Johnson says he submitted a FOIA request to CRCL seeking records related to the airport tour.

In his request, Johnson sought information about the invitees, participants, tour guides, areas toured, and the nature of any security checks conducted before extending the invitations, according to the complaint.

Homeland Security acknowledged Johnson’s request about a month later, according to the complaint, but refused to release relevant records in their entirety.

“Eight of the nine pages were heavily redacted, or poor quality, and some provided no information beyond the format of the document,” the lawsuit states.

In response, Johnson filed an administrative appeal, which was reviewed by the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Administrative Law Judge in October, pursuant to a memorandum of agreement between Homeland Security general counsel and the Coast Guard office, according to the complaint.

The Coast Guard judge never received a response from CRCL about concerns over the redactions and asserted FOIA exemptions, and ruled in January that Johnson had the right to challenge the agency’s response to his records request in federal court.

CRCL did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Johnson’s lawsuit Monday evening.

Johnson – who is represented in the case by Theresa Bevilacqua of Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis – says he sought the records for reporting purposes concerning a matter of public interest. He claims CRCL’s failure to turn over the requested records “has resulted in insufficient responses and significant delay to plaintiff’s news story.”

“A free and vibrant press is a core, bedrock principle of our republic, set forth in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and literally hundreds of years’ worth of jurisprudence,” his lawsuit states. “One of the foundational responsibilities of the press to question, investigate, and report on the actions of the United States government, its citizens, and its residents.”

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