Student reporter hit with big bill after FOIA request

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Plymouth — Leola Gee’s number one lesson for her high school journalism students: Tell the truth, and deal with whatever comes.

But Gee never expected the quest for truth would result in a nearly $8,000 bill for a Freedom of Information Act request from Plymouth-Canton Community Schools.

Salem High School student journalist Chris Robbins had a simple question: What prompts Plymouth-Canton to block access to certain websites on school computers?

Salem High School student journalist Chris Robbins' Freedom of Information Act request resulted in a nearly $8,000 bill.

Robbins, who writes for The Perspective, the joint student newspaper for Plymouth High School, Salem High School, and Canton High School, wanted to do a story on the topic, and sent a FOIA request to the district office sometime around Halloween.

The blocked websites, which students and teachers noticed upon returning to school in the fall, had become a source of curiosity. Why was a website like Pinterest, which some teachers used as teaching tools, banned, while others were allowed? Who decides?

When users encounter a blocked website, Gee said, they’re allowed to submit an appeal arguing why the website should be allowed. Robbins requested a list of which websites were blocked, any guidelines for which websites were blocked, and for the emails in which faculty and staff made their appeals, among other items.

That bill came out to $7,917.15.

“We thought it was a typo,” Gee said.

That cost, according to the district, represented the time it would take to have an employee who earns almost $45 per hour search through the emails of the 85 staff members who had made appeals.

The district isolated 85 appeal requests as belonging to staff and faculty members, and said it would take two hours to review each of their emails to make sure nothing was missed.

The student publication doesn’t have the cash to cover the bill, and Robbins wasn’t able to ante up, either.

Chris Robbins.

“I’m not rich,” Robbins told The News. “I don’t have a job. I do choir and write for the student newspaper.”

Robbins was also skeptical about the numbers: $44.92 per hour of work retrieving the documents, taking just over 176 hours.

In January, the state amended FOIA laws in part to reduce prohibitive fees. The law now requires that copying costs not exceed 10 cents per page, among other restrictions.

FOIA also requires that government bodies have the lowest-paid person who is able to retrieve information do so, said Michael Reitz, an attorney who is executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

“The cost of fulfilling FOIA requests is the number one complaint we hear from people seeking public records,” Reitz said.

After consulting with several advisers, Robbins appealed the decision.

The district’s response: another bill, this time for $8,806.

“When government agencies send a big bill for FOIA requests, that effectively turns into a denial of the request,” Reitz said.

The pertinent number in the second bill, the district said, is 10,200 minutes, or 170 hours. This time, the person doing the retrieval would be paid an hourly rate of $49.95 — up from the $44.92 hourly cost associated with the first request.

A compromise, of sorts, was reached when The Perspective modified its FOIA request, ending its pursuit of the teacher emails. With that gone, the district gave Robbins the information requested in the modified FOIA, free of cost. It arrived on Monday, he said.

There is still a possibility Robbins will again pursue those emails, but Robbins said as yet he’s not sure.

Plymouth-Canton schools spokesman Nick Brandon said in a statement that the district takes FOIA requests seriously, including those from students, and was merely following the law.

“Our number one priority as a school is the education of our students, and student FOIA requests can be an excellent learning opportunity for the leaders of tomorrow whom we are educating today,” he said. “The FOIA process is often not well-understood by those who have not previously used it, and it is understandable that pupils may not be aware that Section 4 of the Act provides the structure for fees associated with producing records.

“When it becomes apparent that producing a thorough response to a request may require significant labor, and hence potentially significant costs, the district may engage with the requestor to explain the forecasted fees, and work to provide as much information as possible without incurring those fees.”

Gee, a former Detroit News columnist who filed her first FOIA request in the 1970s, called the ordeal “the most incredible FOIA lesson I’ve ever taught.”

“Students have a right to ask government entities for public documents without getting a punitive response,” Gee said. “The hubris they’ve displayed is mind-boggling.”

As for Robbins’ story, Gee said it will be printed in the Dec. 18 edition of The Perspective.

“It ain’t over,” Gee said.