Records requests pricey at the University of Idaho

Editor’s note: This article is by the Murrow News Service, which provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. It appeared in The Spokesman-Review on Dec. 2 and is reprinted here.

When Tom Blanchard wanted to learn more about controversial murals at the University of Idaho, he filed a public records request. The university responded that the records were available.

But first, Blanchard would have to pay a bill: $18,078.11.

“They discouraged me from gaining access to public records, and it worked,” said Blanchard, chairman of the board of trustees for the Idaho State Historical Society and a former history teacher.

Blanchard is not alone in facing daunting fees in order to gain access to public information from the university. From January to October this year, the university received 57 public records requests; 10 of those resulted in fees that ranged from $64 to nearly $90,000.

Idaho’s public records law is more restrictive than Washington’s and the University of Idaho appears to take maximum advantage of the law’s restrictions.

University officials declined interview requests, but sent an email citing when charges can be issued for public records requests.

Among the fees charged:

$64 to retrieve security camera footage to the student newspaper.

More than $1,100 to a law student seeking documents for his thesis.

$1,080 billed to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News for emails regarding an alleged theft at the VandalStore.

$89,717.80 billed to John Bradbury, a lawyer and retired judge. He submitted a public records request about a client who was a tenured professor in the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. The request asked for 10 years’ worth of emails, phone logs and other means of communication between faculty members in the college that mentioned the tenured professor.

“It was a very broad request, but I have to say I was shocked,” Bradbury said.

Public records law seen as a financial barrier

Under Idaho’s Public Records Act, agencies can charge individuals for public records if the request is predicted to be time-consuming – exceeding 100 pages or two hours in labor. But agencies are not required to do so. In Washington, the law does not allow fees for accessing public records, only for copies of the records.

“Most government agencies have tight budgets,” said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant at the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit that works with college journalists. Some agencies “are making up for that shortfall by looking at the public records provisions as kind of a money-making thing, and that’s never what they were intended to do.”

Not all requests resulted in fees at the University of Idaho. A reporter with Bloomberg News in New York was provided – without charge – employee contracts and a breakdown of the UI athletic department’s Student Assistance Fund spending. The Idaho Federation of Teachers was able to receive the salaries of specific UI faculty members at no cost. And the university did not charge the Murrow News Service for records on the university’s response to record requests
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But fees can pile up for requests that are deemed time-consuming, and if the university needs an attorney to redact information or if the agency has to sift through archival information, these totals can be significant.

“It becomes a financial barrier,” said Bradbury, the lawyer.

After Bradbury received his initial bill, he narrowed his request twice. The fees were reduced from nearly $90,000 to $12,000 and eventually $4,000.

“I understand there are two sides to these records requests,” Bradbury said. “Anyone can make them and sometimes they take a lot of work.”

In 2011, the Idaho Press Club collaborated with legislators to improve access under the state’s public records law. For the majority of requests, there are little to no fees, said Betsy Russell, president of the Idaho Press Club and a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review.

Russell has submitted many public records requests in her journalism career, most of which cost less than $50.

“On the other hand, these are very tough times for the newspaper business,” Russell said. “If an agency says, ‘pay $5,000,’ chances are good that the TV station or newspaper can’t afford it.”

This fall, Joshua Babcock, a reporter for The Moscow-Pullman Daily News, requested video footage of an alleged theft by UI football players at the University of Idaho’s VandalStore, as well as emails related to the incident.

The request for the security footage was denied with the university citing a federal law that protects student education records. The request for the emails was granted, but the university said access to the documents would cost $1,080.

“We thought it was far too much,” said Lee Rozen, the newspaper’s managing editor. “We didn’t understand how they’d calculated a fee that high.”

The fee was eventually reduced to $700, but The Moscow-Pullman Daily News did not pay it and did not get the records.

In Washington, a requester can visit agencies to look through documents and narrow their request. UI requires advance payment of the estimated cost before requesters can schedule an inspection.

A chilling effect

When Blanchard, the retired history teacher, heard about controversial murals at the University of Idaho, he wanted to learn more. The murals depict settlers hanging Native Americans.

“I was curious how our university handled things,” Blanchard said. “I think that’s a reasonable thing to look at in terms of a public agency.”

But when he saw the fees for records relating to the murals exceeded $18,000, he dropped the issue.

Justin Kover, a UI law student and a public records specialist, filed a request for documents to use in his law thesis and was told it would cost $1,145.85. He asked to schedule an in-person review of the documents to narrow his request, but was told to pay the fees first. Kover ended up abandoning the request and changing his thesis topic.

Bradbury, the attorney, said he doesn’t mind paying fees for public records, as long as they don’t jeopardize the public’s ability to access information.

“If (the charges) become a barrier, they should be eliminated altogether,” Bradbury said. “And by accessible, I mean to the average citizen, not to Daddy Warbucks.”