Students Can Get Discounted FOIA Fees, DC Circuit Rules

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on May 27, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Students are educators, too. At least this was the opinion of the DC Circuit, which just opined that documents falling under the FOIA umbrella ought to be cheaper to access for students under the "educational institution" exception.

This appears to be a change in the direction of the FOIA application, as the government has generally held that teachers are eligible for FOIA's reduced fees, but students may not enjoy reduced fees.

Costs of Freeing Up Info

Despite the Freedom of Information Act's name, information doesn't come free and can sometimes be associated with significant costs. In the case of Kathryn Sack, the student wanted to access information covered under FOIA for her doctorate research. When she made the argument that she should also be considered an "educational institution," a lower district court disagreed. Her total bill came out to be $900 dollars.

Furthering Coursework

But the circuit sided with Sack 3-0 and reversed the lower court's decision. "If teachers can qualify for reduced fees, so can students," it said. "Students who make FOIA requests to further their coursework or other school-sponsored activities are eligible for reduced fees under FOIA because students, like teachers, are part of an educational institution." Thus, Sack stands for the rule that students in Sack's position enjoy free or cheaper information.

Not So Free

FOIA has been controversial from the start with critics voicing concerns over the cost of "freedom" of access. Faced with sometimes prohibitively expensive fees for accessing the information, many ordinary citizens and especially students with little means might be discouraged to request information at all from the government.

But the ruling seems to have struck down guidelines issued by the Office of Management and Budget which had authorized agencies to reject student requests for FOIA reduced fees. But the opinion also muddied the waters by asking agencies to ask of students proof that such information was actually needed to "further coursework or other school-sponsored activity."

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