The state of Minnesota's economic development commissioner — who is also the incoming publisher for the Star Tribune — agreed to settle a lawsuit with independent journalist Tony Webster this week over claims that his office violated the state's public records law.
Webster's lawsuit, filed last November, alleged that Steve Grove, in his capacity as commissioner of Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), blocked members of the public on his personal Twitter account. Webster filed a records request for a list of all accounts blocked by DEED and Grove, and DEED took more than six months to respond with incomplete data, an infringement of the Minnesota Data Practices Act, according to Webster's suit.
In a settlement completed Monday, Grove and DEED agreed to pay Webster $17,000 and disclose all DEED-affiliated block lists, and in return, Webster will drop the lawsuit. The settlement stipulates that neither party admits liability.
"In times of uncertainty during the pandemic, Commissioner Grove kept Minnesotans informed about his agency decisions through his Twitter account. However, a number of Minnesotans expressed concern they weren't able to see or respond to those updates because the commissioner blocked their accounts," Webster, a Wyoming-based journalist who has successfully sued government agencies over public records in the past and written for publications in Minnesota, said in a statement Wednesday. "When a state agency head uses their Twitter account in their role as a government official, information about who they block is a public record."
Grove said in a statement that he blocked "fewer than 20 user profiles" from his personal account during the pandemic "due to the incendiary nature of the tweets and comments posted on those profiles."
"Since that time, I have unblocked all of those accounts," he said. "Additionally, no accounts are blocked from official DEED state government Twitter accounts."
The Star Tribune announced this week that Grove, a 45-year-old former Google executive and journalist, will succeed Mike Klingensmith as the news organization's publisher in April. Klingensmith has led the company since 2010 and recently announced his retirement.
Grove's mission will be to drive digital subscriptions and increase advertising as the Star Tribune faces a future with fewer print subscribers.