Court: FOIA discount applies to students, too – The Hill

Students filing open records requests with the federal government should be eligible for reduced fees, an appeals court ruled Friday.

Filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) can sometimes result in hundreds or thousands of dollars in charges that are requested by federal officials for duplicating documents and conducting searches.

While some entities — such as the media and teachers at educational institutions — qualify to have these fees reduced, the Defense Department declared that Kathryn Slack, a student, did not.

“If teachers can qualify for reduced fees, so can students,” wrote Judge Brett Kavanaugh in a U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision released on Friday. “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.”

Slack filed a FOIA request to the Defense Department asking for documents to learn more about the department’s use of polygraph examinations and related records to be used in her Ph.D. dissertation about polygraph bias at the University of Virginia. 

In her request, she asked to be categorized as an “educational-institution” requester under the open records law. The Pentagon declined and charged her $900 to conduct a search for the records. 

The court struck down that determination, saying that Slack was acting in a scholarly way.

Official government guidelines, written by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), say that agencies must evaluate whether someone at an educational institution is using requested information for “institutional” purposes, such as scholarly research, or “individual” ones, like writing a novel. 

“The guidelines purport to say that the ‘institutional versus individual test’ applies to ‘student requests as well’ as teacher requests. But the Guidelines then turn around and say that student requests to further coursework do not qualify as educational-institution requests,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Not surprisingly, in denying Sack’s request to be categorized as an educational-institution requester, the Government relied heavily on that OMB Guideline.”

Kavanaugh said that the OMB guidelines conflict with the FOIA law, which refers to the “educational institution” in a broad sense. There is no reason, he added, to “draw a line here between the teachers and students within the educational institution.”

“The guideline says that a geology teacher seeking information about soil erosion to support her research is entitled to reduced fees,” he said. “But why not the geology student seeking the same information for the same reason? Crickets.” 

“Students often seek access to government information to pursue their particular research interests. And students often lack the money (or would be unwilling to spend it) to pay the extra fees that would be required for their FOIA requests if they were denied classification as an educational institution,” Kavanaugh added. 

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