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Do I have to pay for the information I ask for in a FOIA request?

Question | FOIA/OMA
I submitted a FOIA request asking to see all of the principal’s email messages in the past year. The school told me it was going to charge me $5,000 to turn over the emails! Is this right? Can the school charge me this much?

“FOIA” stands for the Freedom of Information Act, and it’s a great way to stay woke on what the government is up to! FOIA gives you the right to request access to any government body’s records. If the type of info you’re asking for falls under FOIA guidelines, the government has to turn it over.

In this case, since the principal is employed by a public school (a government body), any emails she sends on the school’s computer are public information. So, the principal’s emails can be FOIA’d.

Info That Can’t Be FOIA’d

Government bodies are required to hand over any information requested under the FOIA, unless it falls under one of nine exceptions that protect things like personal privacy, medical records, national security, law enforcement investigations and sensitive financial information.

Click here for a complete list of exceptions and explanations of them.

For your question, you're interested in getting information about changes to the school lunch program. The kind of food served for high school lunches is an issue that the public would be interested in. You couldn’t FOIA things like another student’s academic record or a teacher’s employment file that have private information, but you can get public information from a FOIA request!

Why Should People Have to Pay for FOIA’d Info?

Yes, the government can charge you money for your FOIA request. We know it might seem unfair at first, but the cost is to cover the time it takes someone to collect the info you requested (instead of doing other parts of their job). For example, if it takes a tech person or administrative assistant four hours to find the FOIA’d information and prepare it to send back, a school can charge for that work. In most states, the school can only charge the hourly wage of its lowest paid employee.

You could cut the cost a lot if you narrow your FOIA request. But how? Really focus on the information that you actually need to answer your question. Do you need an entire year’s worth of the principal’s emails no matter who they were sent to? Ask: who were the important emails between? When were they probably sent? For example, say the school lunch problem was discussed in the summer only by four people on a committee. With that in mind, you could ask for emails from May to September exchanged only between the principal and the committee members. That would take a lot less work to track down and cut the cost of the FOIA’d info. 

Sometimes a school wants to discourage someone from getting information, so it charges a lot of money to answer a FOIA. This isn’t right, but it happens. If this happens to you, then it might be time to bring the issue to someone outside the school. There have been cases where students have been charged as much as $25,000 for a FOIA request! While you could bring this to court, there are other ways to solve this problem. The students who were charged $25,000 published the story in the city newspaper and the school backed down and fulfilled their request! 

The government and public schools are supposed to serve the people and operate with transparency. As Americans, we have a right to know what our government is doing. Public information should not be difficult to get. Know your rights and don’t be afraid to assert them! And, by the way, FOIA law says you can request public information and you don’t have to tell the government office why you want it. If a government worker asks what you are going to do with the information, you don’t have to answer!

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