Last Friday, MuckRock’s Sam Whitmore Media Survey Fellow Jessie Gomez joined us for our weekly Friday FOIA Chat on MuckRock’s Slack Channel. Gomez is currently working on building FOIA resources for researchers and journalists, and one of the problems she is looking to tackle is the complicated, varying, and often baseless FOIA fees. Here’s some strategies that came out of the conversation.
FOIA Fees 101
First off, at the federal level, there are three types of fees categories for FOIA requesters:
Members of the media, educational institutions, noncommercial uses, and scientific institutions
As MuckRock’s Michael Morisy wrote last year, most requesters should aim for the one in the middle, even if they’re not professional researchers and journalists. .
High roller agencies
She showcased the Drug Enforcement Agency’s $1.4 million dollar fee for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s documents.
The higest federal FOIA recorded was $660 million.
Which state has the highest fees? The winner, at an average of $56667.61 per request, is sweet home Alabama. However, Texas earns an honorable mention for a $1.1 million outlier for prison sexual asssault records.
This one weird trick for lower FOIA fees …
Gomez’s solution for reducing fees? Picking up the phone and calling the public information officer. Negotiating how much time it can actually cost an agency to review the documents, and asking them to send over digital copies instead of printing can reduce costs. MuckRock users have had luck with getting agencies to place the documents on a service like Dropbox, or, for the more analog agencies, mailing them a hard drive they can transfer the documents to.
Cutting those costs
FOIA requesters who are also extreme couponers can get their fees waived if they can prove the agency has heavily mishandled a request. Examples include extreme delays or losing communications.
One MuckRock user was able to get a Vermont agency to cut their fee down from $1,400 to zero dollars by explaining that no, they did not have to make the interns cut off email headers and could instead use software they already owned to remove identifiers.
If all else fails …
Requesters can also state that releasing the documents are in the interest of the public and ask for a - you guessed it - Public Interest Fee Waiver.
Stuck with a FOIA fee and are sure that the records would benefit the public, reach out to your local ACLU, NFOIC, RCFP, or SPJ chapters.
If you have any FOIA Fee stories, feel free to send them to Gomez through her Slack @Jessie Gomez.
If there’s someone you’re dying to see in a future FOIA chat, send us a request here, at the bottom of the page.
Join us this Friday
Make sure to join us this Friday at 12pm EST for a chat with FOIA lawyer Kel McClanahan.
If you have recommendations on who you would like to chat with on our Friday FOIA chats, please submit them here at the bottom of the page.
Image via Wikimedia Commons