The Price of Accessing Public Records: ACLU of RI Lawsuit Challenges High Fees

By Steven Brown

brownIs a public record “public” if nobody can afford to see it? That’s not a philosophical question, but rather one at the center of a lawsuit the ACLU of Rhode Island filed last month on behalf of a small community advocacy group.

In an effort to obtain information relating to law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration officials, the Olneyville Neighborhood Association (ONA) filed detailed open records requests with five local police departments, as well as the RI Department of Corrections and RI State Police. The five police departments agreed to waive all search and copying fees and provided ONA the documents at no cost. However, the DOC sought an estimated $593 for retrieving and copying the records, and the State Police demanded a pre-payment of $1,500 before they would even begin searching for the requested documents.

In the lawsuit (.pdf), ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Kathleen Connell and Christopher Gerlica argue that the two agencies’ “refusal to waive the fee and their costly demands actually denies public access to the documents and is counter to the goals and objectives of the Access to Public Records Act.”  The lawsuit seeks a court order waiving the significant fees the agencies want to charge ONA before turning over the requested records.

Rhode Island’s open records law authorizes courts to waive fees when the information requested “is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.” ONA’s request clearly meets that standard, as the group plans to use the information to help educate the public and governmental agencies about the consequences of so-called Immigration and Customs Enforcement “holds,” and to advocate ending the practice.

The right to access public records means little if agencies can put them beyond the financial reach of most requesters. Fulfilling requests like this should be part of a public body’s core mission, not a money-making venture. The ACLU is hopeful that the courts will recognize this basic principle and require the disclosure of these important documents without cost.

Steven is director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.

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