Study: High Copy Fees Curtail Public Access to Government Information
People seeking government information to make their communities better face frustrations and obstacles because of high copy fees, according to a new study “To Fee or Not to Fee: Requester Attitude Toward Freedom of Information Charges, co-authored by David Cuillier, director of the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida. The study was published in October in Government Information Quarterly.
Cuillier and co-author A.Jay Wagner of Marquette University surveyed 330 people across the United States who have requested public records from the government through state and federal freedom of information laws.
They compared two different kinds of requesters: Those seeking information in the public interest, such as journalists, researchers, and nonprofit organizations, and those seeking information for commercial purposes, such as lawyers and businesses that profit from information. The study found that:
- All requesters say excessive copy fees charged by the government are a significant problem, topped only by long delays and being denied records.
- Those seeking information in the public interest find fees even more of a barrier compared with commercial requesters.
- Copy fees discourage people from seeking information from the government, particularly in dealing with state agencies compared with local or federal governments.
Cuillier said the study confirms that copy fees inhibit the ability for journalists and other members of the public to acquire information they need to better understand the actions of government.
“Requesting public records to see what our government is up to, should not be reserved for the rich,” Cuillier said. “This is a fundamental right in a democracy, in a free republic, for every person, no matter their status, to see the very documents they paid for with their taxes. We wouldn’t allow cover charges at city council meetings, or a fee to vote, yet copy fees shut out average people from seeing vital documents that shed light on government, expose corruption, and hold officials accountable.”
Cuillier said the nation’s founders intended government to provide its documents for the public for free, resulting in the federal depository library system. Colonial leaders even lamented, in the Declaration of Independence, that the British made it difficult to review government records. Yet, copy fees have emerged over the decades to impede access while recouping a fraction of the actual cost of maintaining public records.
“This is particularly a problem in states like Florida, where agencies can charge for search and review time,” Cuillier said. “Huge fees, sometimes in the thousands or millions of dollars, gut public record laws and prevent societal good. If the public wants to maintain control over the instruments they created, then we need a better system.”