Pricing public records out of reach

Many public officials have decided just saying no to requests for government documents is not the best way to keep them secret. Indirect assaults on the public’s right to know are better, they believe. That way they cannot be accused of disobeying freedom of information laws.

As thoughtful Americans were pondering the observance of Sunshine Week last week, West Virginia Supreme Court members were considering an important freedom of information case. It goes to the heart of one method used to keep the public from obtaining documents to which it is entitled under state law.

Local and state officials have known for years that they are permitted to charge the public reasonable fees, usually a few cents per page, for providing copies of government documents. But in 2012, officials in Nitro, near Charleston, decided to up the ante. They told a couple who had filed a Freedom of Information Act request that the city would charge them $25 an hour for looking up the documents.

Clearly, an open-endedsearch fee such as that in Nitro is an indirect assault on the public’s right to know. Many West Virginians seeking access to government documents would abandon their quests upon being told they were liable for $25 an hour, or some other amount, in fees for a search. That is especially true given the fact officials conducting the search would have every incentive to make it a long, costly one.

Nowhere in the state Freedom of Information Act is there a provision for government officials to charge search fees for finding documents. The only charge authorized is that those requesting records can be required to pay reasonable costs for making copies of them.

A Kanawha County circuit judge made that point in ruling in the couple’s favor in their lawsuit against Nitro. City officials appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case earlier this month.

Why high court justices even accepted the case for review is puzzling. In other situations in the past, the court has made it clear that when the wording of statutes is unambiguous, there is no room for judges or justices to interpret meaning. And, as the lower court judge noted, in specifying the public can be charged only for “actual cost in making reproductions” of requested documents, the Freedom of Information law “could not be any clearer.”

Supreme Court justices should rule against Nitro. Doing otherwise would give local officials throughout the state license to shut off access to public records – by pricing them out of reach of West Virginians.