Freedom of information ain’t free, but it might be getting freer.

by Forrest M. Pasanski

FP1If you want to know how much money your mayor makes, try a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The FOIA allows you to peak behind the curtain by obtaining documents in the government’s possession. Everything you (n)ever wanted to know about the FOIA can be found in this nifty publication by the Michigan Legislature.

Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the general rule of disclosure. Some make sense: a governmental agency may withhold personal information that, if released, would be an invasion of privacy (Social Security numbers, for example, should be redacted). Some don’t make as much sense: the FOIA doesn’t apply to legislators (the folks who wrote the law—go figure!) or the judicial branch.

Legislators probably wrote an exemption for themselves because, from the government’s perspective, it is often a pain in the rear to deal with a FOIA request. I’ve been on the government’s side of a request before—searching for, and sorting through, hundreds of documents for weeks. Because it’s not easy for them, some local governments make it difficult and costly for citizens to obtain information, usually by charging high prices for copying and gathering (see this recent MLive article for an example).

Fortunately, as the article above points out, House legislation has been introduced to reduce FOIA costs for citizen. If passed, House Bill 4001 would set limits on copying and gathering fees and further reduce fees when a government lags behind FOIA response deadlines. It would also allow citizens to sue in circuit court to have fees reduced and would increase penalties for arbitrarily withholding information. The House fiscal analysis says it all: “To the extent that the provisions of the bill lower FOIA request charges, the requestor would realize a corresponding positive fiscal impact.” Translation: you get the info without emptying your wallet.

I think this is great legislation for a few reasons:

First, and most obviously, if you ever need to submit a FOIA request, the information you receive should be cheaper and less, let’s say, “redacty.”

Second, the press uses the FOIA all the time as an investigative tool. A quick look at FOIA case law shows that newspapers are doing most of the suing for information (see Detroit Free Press v. [insert unit of government here]). If these reforms make it cheaper for the press to get information and create more incentives for governments to give it out, I’m all for it, especially if I get better journalism.

Third, it makes it cheaper for someone (not it!) to try an idea I had a while back. I’m talking about the granddaddy of all FOIA requests. That’s right . . . a document containing the Governor’s work cellphone number. I know you’ve probably got better things to do, but I’m just sayin’, if you want to bend Rick’s ear and you’ve got some time, his number may soon be freer than ever.

Forrest Pasanski was born and raised in the Hill Country of Texas until the age of 13, when he and his family moved to Michigan. He has been earning his Michigan citizenship ever since. He studied philosophy and political science at Grand Valley State University and graduated from the Michigan State University College of Law. He and his family also run Jean’s Beans, a small business that roasts, flavors, and sells coffee in Muskegon.

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