Sunshine Law request results in $82,000 bill for public records search

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August 30, 2016 by Paul Dughi

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Generic Beagle from Pixabay.com

Group seeks information on how dogs are being used in research by Universities

The Beagle Freedom Project is an animal rights activist group that’s filed a lawsuit against the University of Missouri. The suit has to do with its claim that the University is violating the state’s Sunshine Laws.

The group’s been outspoken in its criticism of using animals for testing purposes, even for scientific study. It has petitioned a number of Universities for documentation on how the animals have been treated. According to the complaint, when it asked for University of Missouri records, the Beagle Freedom Project was told it would cost $400-$700 for one dog. That fee included a wage of $125 per hour for copying.

When it asked for records for the 179 dogs and cats used in experimentation, the University asked for $82,000 for the records.

“It’s a big business and they (University of Missouri) have a vested financial interest in keeping their activities secret. By trying to charge us $82,000, what they are attempting to do is circumvent the Sunshine Law and thwart our efforts to expose, lift their veil of secrecy.”  Daniel Kolde, Beagle Freedom Project lawyer to ABC 17

The Beagle Freedom Project is a non-profit. As such, it asked the University to waive its fees. The University declined.

“The university said, ‘We’ve decided it’s not in our best interests,’” Kolde told The Riverfront Times. “Well, we’re talking about the public’s interest.”

Kolde is talking about the section of the state’s Sunshine Law that allows for a waiver of fees if it’s in the public interest.

Documents may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge when the public governmental body determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the public governmental body and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.” Missouri Sunshine Law

Now, public entities are allowed to charge “reasonable fees” for providing public records. Are these fees reasonable? Here’s the law:

Fees for copying public records, except those records restricted under section 32.091, shall not exceed ten cents per page for a paper copy not larger than nine by fourteen inches, with the hourly fee for duplicating time not to exceed the average hourly rate of pay for clerical staff of the public governmental body. Research time required for fulfilling records requests may be charged at the actual cost of research time. Based on the scope of the request, the public governmental body shall produce the copies using employees of the body that result in the lowest amount of charges for search, research, and duplication time Missouri Sunshine Law

“We asked for things that should have been available to an inspector immediately upon request on any given day, so there should not have been time required to compile these.” — Daniel Kolde, BeagleFreedom Project lawyer to ABC 17

FURTHER READING:  I’ve attached the Lawsuit if you want to read it.

Group has sued other Universities as well

It’s not the only lawsuit the group’s filed. The group sued the University of Illinois after receiving heavily redacted records about research protocols and having several requests denied. The Illinois Attorney General looked at the requests and agreed that some of the redactions have been improper, according to the Chicago Tribune. The group says it has yet to receive the documents.

The group also sued the Univertsity of Texas.

I’m not trying to defend the Beagle Freedom Project’s lawsuits, or cast aspersions on the University of Illinois or University of Missouri, but I am pointing out a seemingly growing trends of significant bills and hurdles put in place to stop groups — primarily journalists — from getting public documents from public institutions.

Requests take more time than ever

Information is delayed, like a Dayton Daily News request for public records from the US Marshall’s Service that took 14 months to respond, only to tell them the request should have gone to the FBI. Or there’s a significant bill attached to acquire seemingly simple information, like the Plymouth, Michigan student journalist who asked for a list of the websites banned in public schools and was presented a bill for $8,000.

The feeling on a lot of these issues seems to be, ignore them and they’ll go away.

FOIA Improvement Act

Both the House and Senate recently passed the FOIA Improvement Act and President Obama signed it into law. The bill is designed to “boost government responsiveness” to Freedom of Information Act requests. It says, in short, the government should presume openness when considering the release of information.

Will it change anything?

I worry that for career bureaucrats, it won’t change much. I fear it will be sort of like that “innocent until proven guilty” thing in the court of public opinion. Bill proponents talk about changing the “default setting” to openness. Some public officials have been so conditioned to think of public records as secrets, it will be difficult to switch that switch.

The bill puts a 25-year sunset on the government’s ability to withhold certain documents “that demonstrate how the government reaches decisions, which now can be withheld indefinitely from the public.” It also requires agencies to make publicly available “documents that have been requested and released three or more times under FOIA.”

RELATED:  Journalists get some help in battle over public records

Kind of ironic that the bill gets signed within days of a newspaper publisher and his lawyer in northern Georgia get charged with felonies (yes, felonies!) for filing an Open Records request. When they asked for bank records of a court’s operating account, the administrative judge said they were trying to commit identity fraud with the information. They were arrested and charged with felonies.

RELATED:  Newspaper publisher, lawyer charged with felonies after filing Open Records request


porno-foia-redactionAs an aside, here’s an example of how some requests come back to journalists. What the agency feels is confidential information or falls outside the parameters of the request is simply blacked out with an explanation of why they have done so.

It happens to Congress as well. This image was actually the answer to a request made by a House committee.


Parts of the article have been republished from previous works

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