Public records are fundamental to understanding how the government works, and officials typically acknowledge that people are entitled to them as a matter of right. But when government offices can charge requesters for finding, copying and redacting the records, those costs can add up to more than an individual journalist or member of the public can afford.
Two trends in freedom of information fees should be particularly worrisome to journalists: first, at the federal level, there has been a move toward granting fewer waivers for “representatives of the news media,” in part because agencies are having trouble defining who qualifies as news media. At the state level, journalists are facing efforts to discourage requests by government offices that impose exorbitant fees as barriers. The founder of one FOIA-oriented news site, for example, said that while many requests may result in $25-50 bills, agencies sometimes quote requesters fees in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for public records.
The federal news media waiver
The federal Freedom of Information Act allows the government to charge members of the news media only for copying or duplication costs, not for the time spent searching for the records or reviewing them for possible exempt material. Public interest requesters also get reduced fees. Under FOIA, only commercial requesters – people or companies looking to further their financial interests through FOIA requests – are supposed to pay full price.